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He asked me, "Do you believe in me? I realise I haven't studied professionally very long, but do you believe in me?"
7 July 15: The extraordinary young French pianist Lucas Debargue, whose natural artistry captivated the audience at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Russia last week, has generated many questions about the nature of his talent and lack of conventional training. Here is a detailed and explanatory interview conducted during the competition with his teacher, Moscow-trained Rena Shereshevskaya, to whose Paris classes Debargue showed up when he was 20, and who prepared him for the Tchaikovsky.
Incidentally, Debargue not only was asked by competition chairman Valery Gergiev to play in front of President Putin at the closing gala, but has been given a prestigious recital on 14 July in the Mariinsky concert hall, St Petersburg, during Gergiev’s White Nights Festival. The Moscow music critics, who awarded him their prize for artistry in the competition - in which he came last in the final - have already announced he will have a Moscow recital in December.
Lucas’s adventures in Moscow
The 24-year-old French pianist Lucas Debargue has been the genuine sensation of the XV Tchaikovsky Competition. His interpretation of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, Mozart’s 24th piano concerto and sonatas by Medtner and Beethoven are being hailed as artistic marvels. Everyone is talking about the phenomenal Debargue.
After studying professionally for four years, he managed to go the distance of two competitive rounds against the severest competition from virtuosi. Lucas Debargue then played in the final round - Tchaikovsky’s 1st and Liszt’s 2nd piano concerti. On the eve of the final, his teacher Rena Shereshevskaya, a professor at Paris’s Alfred Cortot higher music school, spoke to Rossiiskaya Gazeta about her unique pupil.
"He sits and plays the third sonata, with a sort of radiant smile on his face. Prokofiev’s third sonata by ear!"
RG: How did you come to have such a pupil, and how would you define his charisma?
SHERESHEVSKAYA: He turned up quite simply: he came to play in an exam in the Rueil-Malmaison music school near Paris. He came up on stage, just as you see he is - he sat bolt upright with legs in different directions and played. Half of the score couldn’t be heard, he was rushing like he was in a race. As regards the interpretation, usually it’s possible to say: ‘Hey, what’s going on, you can see what’s written in the score’ But here it was just in general all topsy-turvy - the tragic was comic, the comic was tragic. I thought to myself: this is a young man who’s kind of emotionally unhinged. And really, it can’t be done, that he’s going to play everything by ear: really, it wasn’t Bach, it wasn’t Mozart! A colleague asked me, are you going to take him? I said, yes. And he said, what will you do about him? I said, I don’t know.
Lucas didn’t turn up for his first lesson for a long time. I couldn’t understand it. I called him: Lucas, this is Shereshevskaya. Why aren’t you here? Silence. Then: ‘Oh, so you took me on then?’ He hadn’t even gone to look at the lists: he was absolutely sure that it was impossible that I’d taken him into my class.
He was that pessimistic?
No, he’s a mix of a kind of romantic exaltation but also an absolutely solid sense of reality. He has his feet on the ground. For instance, right now - he said, ‘If I get into the final, I’ve got to play concertos. So I need to think that all through. But you won’t give up on me? I need you, I’ve got to learn so much more.’
When I took him on, I noticed he came to lessons carrying books, literature. And good literature, too. But in France people don’t read like we do here. In France you ask some student, who was Eugene Onegin? They’ll reply, a Russian composer! But Lucas was always with books, from the very first lesson. I start teaching him, I say: ‘Lucas, you know, don’t you, that you can play with the right hand louder than the left, or the left louder than the right?’ He says, ‘That’s hard!’
I had a boy in my class who had performed in Vladimir Spivakov’s festival, he was playing Prokofiev’s 3rd sonata. Lucas was sitting next to me and suddenly said, ‘I adore Russian music, I adore Russian authors, I adore this sonata, I adore Prokofiev, and I already know this piece almost to the end.’ I say, ‘What, you learned it? This lad had a teacher who worked intensely two or three years with him.’ He said, ‘No, I never learned it.’ ‘You learned it from the score?’ ‘No.’ So I say to him, ‘Play it to me.’ And he sits and plays the third sonata, with a sort of radiant smile on his face. Prokofiev’s third sonata by ear!
I sit down, I show him something, I explain a bit, I start to play a blues of Erroll Garner. Lucas bursts out, ‘You like jazz? Me too!’ I tell him, ‘Ok, sit down, play some.’ And he sits and you just can’t stop him. So I stand up and say, ‘Come on, Lucas, that’s enough, we’ve got to study, enough!’ But it is a kind of release for him. Like you saw here, at the competition - after his Mozart concerto in the hall, he played jazz in his dressing room. And it’s not because he’s a show-off, he simply needs to let off steam, create something, as he says, a sort of ambiance for people who like him are so overflowing with emotion. He says, people shouldn’t be running after him for an autograph or grabbing him in the street; it’s not him, it’s the music that’s making that impression, that’s what he thinks.
So does he himself understand the uniqueness of his own temperament?
He is absolutely unique, and not only in music - I got that straightaway. But apart from me and the young people in my class, no one believed in his uniqueness. He came up to me after some meetings and exams, and asked me, ‘Do you believe in me? I realise that I haven’t been studying how to play professionally very long, but do you believe in me?’ With a person like that there’s no half-measures. Once he was playing and I’m sitting and writing in Russian, ‘dumbo!’ But at the same time, ‘genius!’ And I asked him, ‘Lucas, what’s going on?’ And he knows it’s not right. And he said, ‘I’m just tired, I’m tired of running to the Metro, taking private lessons, looking all over Paris for a piano, all just so as to keep studying.’
He has a tough family situation. The parents divorced, they don’t help him. There was a grandmother and grandfather who live near Paris. I said, ‘I’ll go and talk to your grandparents!’ He said, ‘Please, I beseech you, don’t! They do all they can.’ No, I said, I’ve got to talk to them. I go see them and I say, ‘You realise that Lucas is going to Roland Garros?! It makes everything understood at once. And I’m saying, they all have masseurs there, they eat special food, and so on. But your grandson takes the metro to private lessons. Take him in, you must, so he can study, so he can rest, get outside into nature.’ The grandmother said: ‘Fine, we’ll go and sleep in the trailer so he can have our bedroom.’ And he went to stay with his grandparents, to whom I’ll be grateful for the rest of my life.
"Like Horowitz, he has an innate virtuosity. The playing was full of holes but his fingers just flew in any direction"
Are external things important to him?
He just needs wings. He called me from Moscow and said: ‘I'm so happy, What a hall, what a piano! When I’m playing, it’s like flying - I’ve got wings!’ But yesterday after the Mozart he went to his dressing room and wouldn’t come out. He said, ‘I feel I should have done it better.’ I told him, ‘All the same, your Mozart was amazing.’ But he has some kind of inner way of listening to himself, and not only to himself.
Lucas has a sense of physical contact with music.
Yes, and I told him, ‘You physically enter the sound, you are with the composers, you’re not even in the hall.’ Some kind of metamorphosis happens with him. Of course, he’s got genius.
When he started to make progress four years ago, I told him, ‘Lucas, if this keeps going well, you can go to the Tchaikovsky competition.’ People often go around the competitions and play the one same programme around the world. Which is why they begin to play identically, athletically, they pump themselves up with these artificial kinds of emotion. It’s a new kind of sport in the world. I take a different position: you can play in a mass of smaller competitions in order to build up programmes, compose a repertoire, but at some point you do need that big competition. And I told Lucas, ‘Your big competition should be the Tchaikovsky.”
But it is the most difficult and unpredictable of the lot.
Yes. And I knew what we were going into, and how strong this year’s contestants would be. I told him, ‘You must make me a promise, that if you don’t get into the second round you won’t give up. Just as I promised to you four years ago that you would play in the Tchaikovsky, that after four years we’d come here and be successful.’ But neither I nor he was thinking about a prize. We just worked to prepare. We brought a tricky programme, although they had a go at us in Paris about it: ‘Are you mad? You’re playing Medtner?’ Lucas even took this programme to the Ecole, but they told us, ‘No, no, we won’t listen to Medtner - please, something else!’ But Lucas really loves this music. He plays all of it. All the literature you want.
How does he play it? How do you work with him?
The fact is, for me the base of all work is Bach. I teach his vocabulary, his composition, as the fundamental of the music of all time. And my kids somehow start to hear differently. Not like little stencils. Let’s say, they know that the secondary theme in Rachmaninov’s 2nd concerto is a Bach chorale. Or he comes to me and say, ‘You know why Beethoven has these cadenzas?’ And he starts talking about it. In our class everyone’s infected with this. I deeply believe that if you’re not just going to be a cut-out, you need knowledge. And you can’t just say that performers or composers are born like that. They’re born and then they learn how to become so. Mozart might have become a great mathematician, if his family had had mathematicians in it.
Lucas’s playing has a quality of live improvisation in it.
That’s true and not true. Of course, he’s already thought through and prepared the bases. He’s able to say, ’In order to be certain when I go out to play, I have written down from memory this Bach prelude and fugue.’ But yesterday he sat and sang it through, in order to get the phrasing right. And so when he’s got all of that, he sits on stage and his sorcery begins.
Yes, I will explain to him how a phrase is constructed in a certain context, that the composer was exploiting the possibility of the instrument - the Mozart instrument, the Beethoven instrument, and so on. But how could he do that on stage? He doesn’t work eight hours on the instrument. And when I feel that he’s tired, he’s starting to get tight, I say, ‘Lucas, I’m off!’ And he’ll say, ‘Yeah, yeah, me too.’ Or he’ll phone me and say, ‘Today I haven’t touched the piano, I’ve simply looked at the score, I’ve sung it - don’t worry, I’m fine.’
His feeling for sound is phenomenal: in Gaspard de la nuit he uses the sound to create the most suggestive effects - real fear, the terror of illusions, the torpor of death.
It was he who wanted to play Gaspard de la nuit. Once we were in the hills, and he says, ‘I want to learn Scarbo.’ And three days later he brought me Scarbo, which he’d picked up by ear. There were of course wrong notes in it, but it was still Scarbo. I told him, ‘Yes, you played it, just the general sense of it.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘But Scarbo was there?’ And Rémi Geniet [another of her students] answered for me: ‘Not just “was there” - I got goosebumps.’ What it means is, for Lucas what first comes is the image and he goes on from there - he can’t learn the way others do.
For instance, he plays a Chopin Etude and I say to him, ‘Lucas, I know you need to play fast, that’s understood. But what I need is something more of trepidation, a sort of fleeting love in the way the sound moves, I want something more transient.’ And that’s how we work, with images. Sometimes he needs technical help, like how to make a certain sound on the piano, and then I prompt him to find it.
What is his natural technical capability, having not got the foundation he needs to play virtuoso music?
He’s like Horowitz, he has an innate virtuosity. That was what struck me at once when I took him on; the playing was full of holes but his fingers just flew in any direction. He has a virtuosity that comes from God.
Once we had a tense moment when he was learning Beethoven’s seventh sonata. Lucas was doing very well but suddenly came to me and said, ‘Nothing’s working.’ I couldn’t understand what the matter was. Then a girl in the class told me that he’d been playing scales and exercises for 24 hours a day. He came in and I said, ‘What, do you really think that 100 percent of kids who play scales in double-thirds can then play a Chopin Etude? You, with your talent, with your ears? Stop it!’
I always tell students, ‘When you play there should be nothing there except the image, the sound and time - that personal time that you’re creating from the harmony, from logic, from your analysis. This above all.’
How do you see the right perspective ahead for Lucas?
Firstly, he needs to get a concert diploma. His life is now totally transformed, thanks to the fact that he has been so well understood and received here in my beloved Moscow. Even though there are plenty who didn’t believe he could play in the Tchaikovsky competition. But it’s as if something happened from on high. He asked me in the second round, ‘Do you know what today is?’ No, I said. ‘Today it’s the 24th,’ he said. ‘I am 24, and I am playing the 24th concerto.’
He’s not a simple lad. He knows a great deal. I asked him when we were going past the Central Writers’ House, ‘Do you know that this building is connected to [Bulgakov’s novel] The Master and Margarita?’ He said, ‘You mean, the Patriarch’s Ponds are somewhere around here?’ And it seems that before the competition his grandma had admitted to him that they, apparently, escaped Russia in the Revolution.
Maybe it was some kind of family secret. But Lucas has felt here like a fish in water. He adores that hall, he adores it all. And when some girl or other came up to him with a book of Dostoevsky’s to get his autograph, I told her, ‘It’s true - Dostoevsky is his author.’ That’s quite normal for a Russian, but not for a young Frenchman!
All the Tchaikovsky competition rounds preserved on Medici TV
UK dates in the XV Tchaikovsky competition winners tour, under Valery Gergiev, are 26 October 2015 at Cadogan Hall, London, and 28 October at Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Lucas Debargue and his teacher Rena Shereshevskaya
(photo Elena Chishkovskaya)