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Debargue’s teacher explains her pupil

Parlons Piano with Lucas Debargue

Barry Douglas interview with me on The Arts Desk

"Having been alone for four years with his piano, he was clearly unnerved by  being besieged by fans and  the music industry machine"

15 JUL 15   

A fortnight ago I was the first English-language journalist to interview the young French pianist Lucas Debargue, whose musicianship and individuality of approach have become the story of the 15th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. I reported on the competition elsewhere, in the Telegraph and the Spectator, but it’s evident that that was only the start of the story, and I’m adding later developments here to the full transcript of our meeting (which appears in its earlier form on The Arts Desk ).

Our meeting on 1 July was his first full interview with a journalist, given over a drink in the café at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, where the results were to be announced that evening. Results were not that important. I wanted to interview him because, as a pianist myself, I was intrigued and delighted by his playing, and, as a journalist with reports to write for the UK press, I’d been hearing much speculation about this finalist’s very unorthodox background.

I was also interested to compare him with the prodigious 16-year-old Daniel Kharitonov, who had played after him in the final, and who had studied methodically from the age of five, giving concerts at a very young age. I wondered whether the Russians would naturally cleave to an orthodox home star rather than a maverick foreigner, especially once I read the Russian interview the day before with his teacher, Rena Shereshevskaya, which I’ve translated on this blog. (For context, my Telegraph and Spectator reports were written three days later, after the competition ended.)Люка Дебарг

Nothing should be taken from the victory in the piano section of the thoughtful and able Dmitry Masleev, who himself proved heroically resilient under extreme emotional pressure, his mother having died during the competition. However, the loudest ovations I heard and the most passionate arguments were for Debargue, aged 24, whose first two of the three rounds generated a wave of excitement among listeners in the halls and viewers of the Medici TV live streams.

His second-round playing of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit and Mozart’s 24th piano concerto, in particular, captured listeners, and his compelling concentration on sound rather than technique and an improvisatory freshness in his musical expressiveness contrasted him clearly with the more virtuosic pianists around. Even though the five other finalists played the grand-scale concertos with more impermeable bravura than Debargue, when it emerged that his experimental ideas about Tchaik 1 and Liszt 2 were entirely because he had never played with an orchestra before the competition, the buzz of fascination grew rather than diminished.  

Below, Debargue’s second round performance of Gaspard de la nuit, recorded by Medici TV

The jurors placed Debargue last of the six pianists - but tellingly not in sixth place. They made him fourth, and gave joint third and second prizes to the pianists above him. The Moscow critics then gave him a special award for his creative artistry, and announced a recital for him in Moscow in December, but this hardly mollified a furious camp of Lucas devotees who believed he had been robbed.

Now many questions were being asked about this green but phenomenal talent. His teacher’s interview had painted a picture of an unruly, emotionally disturbed 20-year-old of extremely unpredictable talent, whom she had taken on as a challenge in 2011. (Debargue has had support from a French music foundation, the Fondation de France, which uses social criteria as well as talent for its awards.)

Shereshevskaya said that Debargue had astonished her with the amount of major Russian music he learned by ear as well as his odd technique - habits endorsed by his devotion to jazz and improvisation. But she felt that having to work towards the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition would be the goal he needed to discipline his exceptional gifts and stabilise his focus.

Events have surely proved Shereshevskaya, an alumna of the Moscow Conservatoire, entirely right. After the competition, three Russian jurors Boris Berezovsky, Denis Matsuev and Dmitry Bashkirov, expressed a special delight in the Frenchman, and their wish that the blind voting system had put him higher in the prizes, though all judges agreed that he was not ready to win, for all sorts of reasons. The veteran Bashkirov (father-in-law of Daniel Barenboim) said two years of proper technical coaching was all Debargue needed to become a major pianist.

Notwithstanding, Debargue has been adopted by the Russian music establishment with passion - Valery Gergiev invited him to play in the winners’ gala before President Putin, and programmed a swift recital for him last week in St Petersburg’s celebrated White Nights Festival in the Mariinsky concert hall. The equally prestigious December Nights Festival engaged him for a Moscow recital this winner. Meanwhile, the Moscow critics, having given him their special artistry prize, scheduled a winter Debargue recital which is apparently already sold out.

Having been alone for four years with his piano, Debargue was having difficulty handling the sudden siege by fans and the music industry

When we met, none of this had happened, but the atmosphere around Debargue’s performances was crackling with unpredictability. I’d noticed a certain hysteria about him building on social media. After his Ravel and Mozart round, he’d been prevented from having a private play-down in the dressing room by a sudden irruption of excited people telling him he was fabulous and shoving TV cameras in his face. Something in Debargue’s poetic individualism had caught the Moscow zeitgeist, and his unusual final concerto round had obviously turned the Tchaikovsky competition to ashes for many listeners. He’d won people’s hearts wholesale, but social media showed they feared he wasn’t going to win the prize now.

I had bumped into this nervy, almost adolescent-seeming figure with glasses in our hotel, trembling with agitation at the sudden encounter with a tsunami of public expectation. When we met two days later, he was calmer, but I was conscious of his vulnerability. He had only his teacher there to support him, and he was a rare European in a fervently Russian environment. He was also pretty much ignored back in France, despite a decent competition win last year in the biennial Adilia Alieva Piano Competition (which Masleev won in 2010, incidentally). He had been playing jazz clubs to pay for his piano lessons and hire of a practice instrument. I was struck by a superficial similarity to the first Tchaikovsky winner, Van Cliburn, who said it took winning in Russia to be given the smallest recognition in his own country.

As I understood more as we spoke, it became obvious why the siege by a music industry “machine” felt like an attack.

With TV and press pictures everywhere, the socially inexperienced Debargue realised he had no platform manner or stage etiquette, and the world could see it. At the end of his Mozart chamber concerto performance he had quickly walked off stage without acknowledging the conductor and orchestra, to his huge embarrassment. Even bowing to prolonged public applause was causing him anxiety about how he should compose his face. “I know I will do the monkey,” he said deprecatingly, screwing up his face in a simian grimace. He spoke emphatically, banging on the table in the café.

I was also aware of the sensitivity of his situation giving his first interview in English, but he proved more than capable of expressing anything he chose. He said he had read James Joyce’s Ulysses. It seemed all of a piece with an auto-didact.

We ordered vodka and I asked for some tonic. Debargue lounged back in his chair gave me an instant example of his quick, literate mind: “Did you know Edgar Allan Poe died from drinking gin and tonic? He had nobody to talk with. Now you hear everywhere that alcohol is bad, cigarettes are bad - but no, the major illness is loneliness.” Evidently he spoke from experience.

“What is important is that when I was 10 I heard that beautiful music, the second movement of the 21st concerto of Mozart”

ISMENE BROWN: Does this all feel rather unreal, all this attention?

LUCAS DEBARGUE: Every day is unreal for me, even in daily life. For me it’s always unreal. Not just here - everything is unreal. The only real things are God and love, and the true comunication between the man and the thing, the man and the world.

How did you learn to play the piano? Do you have your own way of learning?

Yes, I began alone. I had no one in my family who pushed me or helped me discover so I had to do it on my own. I remember when I heard the first time the second movement of Mozart’s 21st concerto. I was 10 years old (he was born on 23 October, 1990).

Did you have a radio in the house playing classical?

No, but I found some CDs in a discothèque. It was really by chance.

How did you first actually get to a piano?

Because one of my friends played. This was not the important thing. What is important is that I heard that beautiful music, beautiful is not the word - the second movement of the 21st concerto of Mozart. You can put thousands of books and thousands of years of human history alongside this because there is so much truth, so much deep true love in this music. It showed me something I would like to reach. It spoke to me about nature, it was a huge space. You hear the music of Mozart and suddenly you realise - look how great this is, look around you, how great it all is, and it was absurd to have lived before like inside a nutshell, in a cage. But I could not tell my parents about this because they were focused on real life - they were right in some way - they had to have enough money to feed us. At that time it was just me and my little brother but my parents divorced, and my father rebuilt a family with two more children, so I have three brothers in all.

Your younger brother is musical?

Yes, truly talented. He is interested in pop music, he is a genius on the guitar. He is 22.

And you can talk together about music?


So when you discovered Mozart did you want to play it?

No, just to live in it. It’s the most important thing to me that the sound is not only sound, it is a place to live in. It’s about real emotions, real sensations.

Do you remember the performer?

I don’t think it was a fantastic player but that’s what is incredible about Bach or Mozart, that you can hear it with even amateur or even bad singers - but you are still hearing Bach or Mozart. Music is one of the greatest things and people should be grateful for it, but they are not. They are just thinking about rhythm, boom-boom, they are not listening to the sweet sounds of music, people talking softly, the good conversations of the 18th century. When people say, oh, I heard some Mozart, and then they go back home and do their usual work - that was when I understood that I was a musician. Because for me it was impossible to play music or hear it and then just stop, clap.

Why did you enter this competition?

Together with my teacher, Rena Shereshevskaya. She told me three years ago that if I practised well and listened to her advice, I could go to the competition, whatever happened. After the first round she told me, "It doesn’t matter when you pass or not, it’s really good that you are here to play and I am grateful and proud of you." Because for her the Tchaikovsky competition is something symbolic. And for me too. It became something.

What was that?

[Pause] To be part of the family.

You belonged. Yeah.

Because I told my teacher in my first lesson that I had something of the Russian in me. You know, I discovered Bach and Mozart when I was 10, but Russian music was the music of my teenage years, I discovered raw, physical love through music. Prokofiev, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, it was my world. It was like I could understand anything - as if the composers were speaking to me.

“I had to think up my own way. I cannot say to others that it is good - you need to learn technique as soon as possible”

How did you discover Russian music?

I was on the net. I spent hours on the net, I tried to download some things and put it into my MP3, I spent so much time on the net, reading the scores.

You taught yourself to read music?

Never teach or learn. I just learned.

Have you learned many pieces just by ear?

Yes, Prokofiev 2nd and 3rd sonatas, Scriabin sonata 4, Rachmaninov second concerto.

Is your playing accurate, having learned by ear?

Not precise. There are some places where there are problems, but the essential thing was there.

How do you do it, by listening to several recordings?

Yes, but… I don’t know why, but there are some versions that touched my heart, even if today I can say they are not the best interpretations. For example, when I was a teenager what I preferred for Prokofiev second concerto was Ashkenazy and Rachmaninov 3 it was David Helfgott. But it's really not the best interpretations, but at the time it was feeding me, I don't know why. And for Rachmaninov 1 and Prokofiev 3rd now it’s Byron Janis - I think for me the Kirill Kondrashin/Byron Janis versions are simply incredible. He is a genius, one of the greatest pianists.

This is a very unusual way to learn. When you were trying to master piano technique, how did you get the fingers right, scales, arpeggios, the even touch?

OK, that’s the point where it is difficult to answer, because I think sincerely and deeply that it’s impossible to do anything without a serious technique, without practising octaves and scales. Me, I did this only for about six months, three or four hours each day, scales and arpeggios, three years ago. I would be wrong to say that this is really a way to do it. This was my way. I had to find some kind of other way. I cannot say to other people that it’s good - I have to say to say that it’s necessary, you need to learn technique as soon as possible. For me I came very late into professional piano practising, so it was difficult to do, I had to find some other way to do it. My teacher tells me that I have some facility. It’s true, I think, that it cannot help me at all when I’m on stage.

“What I call the Russian technique is how to play with the soul, how Gilels, Sofronitzky, Horowitz were playing”

What can’t help - the technical problem?

There is a kind of sacrifice, that's what I want to say. The more you are safe, the more you are solid, the less you are musical. That’s a real problem, a real serious problem. Only a few pianists know the secret how to melt perfect technique to perfect sound and perfect soul. If you listen with attention it's never perfect. Listen to Horowitz or listen to Sofronitzky, they always talked about the perfect technique, but they were never perfect. Sofronitzky is a miracle - we don’t need anything else.

So this big Russian piano technique is not for you?

I think it is a caricature when people talk about that. Because Russia opened to the world and it became the Russian way with other elements, it is not the Odessa school. The “Russian way” today is not of Gilels or Sofronitzky, it’s the Russian way about how to be the Best. So when they talk about Russian technique, it’s only about beasts of the piano. But what I call the Russian technique is how to play with the soul, that's how Gilels, Sofronitzky, Horowitz were playing.

How sure and safe do you feel in your technique? Without a traditional training do you worry it will let you down?

Of course. Of course. It is strange for me to be so far in the competition when I am less solid and experienced than the other contestants, but I am honest, I do my best always.

What are you going to do about it? Stay in that risk zone?

Impossible. I talked to one of my best friends in France, who is a technical monster. He is unknown but he can play anything as good as the Russians. He worked with Hanon exercises from the age of five to 15, and now he can play whatever he likes, he is just a beast. He was the first person I called when I passed into the second round into the final. I asked him, "What do you think about this? I am here with my own way of playing the piano, and some monsters of the keyboard were eliminated. What’s the point of it?"

He told me, “You know, it’s true, you have not the best technique in the world, you are weak at some points, but you will have the time to manage that, to find a way to make you stronger, the experience of the stage will be good for that, so it will be quick for you.” He told me whatever people think about my technique, he told me that I have something like grace, I know how to catch the grace. And he said to me that was the most important thing.

You must feel a real sense of achievement here. You've played with an orchestra for the first time, you've captivated people.

It should always be like that - I'm here only because some people don't do it. It should be always like that. I'm here and I'm not the best, and some could do this with the perfect technique and perfect soul, but nowadays we see the division. People can play with perfect soul but they cannot play on stage because they are too emotive, and others are just cold technique, they can play anything 300 days a year - ok, but no music. And then people go to the concerts are used to hearing that, and they think that is the music. It's a real problem.

Is it true you stopped playing for a while?

Yes, I was autodidact from 10 years old to 15, then I stopped completely the piano from 15 to 20. To study literature, but first to get some friends, because I had no friends.

Because of music?

Yes. All my life before then I was inside, so I had no friends. I had to make some friends, and then I was in a rock band, playing bass guitar, and that was some success and became interesting. But then I decided to leave because they were too paresseux, lazy. I left my family at 17 to come to Paris, because I had my first girlfriend and I was very proud of it. I thought, because I was a silly man, you know, I thought this was the woman of my life. But she was not. I spent two years with her and my rock band.

“I was completely alone. I worked in a supermarket to earn money. I was really depressed”    

You were not at school?

I registered at university though I was not very serious. Then she left me for another guy.

And broke your heart?

Of course! I am human! [laughs] No, everything was okay. Then she became a femen - you know the femens? Very strange. So I was completely alone. I worked in a supermarket to earn money. It was in 2009, five years ago. And then I started reading classical literature. A friend of mine was in the university too and he helped me very much to come back to life and get out of my depression, because I was really depressed. And I read literature a lot and talked about art a lot with him, with Martin. It was very important for me.

Which authors did you like?

Balzac first.

Did you study for a degree?

It’s not very important. You can just aggregate it. I studied on my own, I read all night, pages and pages, books and books. Then June of 2010 someone called me from the city where I lived as a teenager and she asked if I would like to play something for the fête de la musique. I was happy to have something to do, so I did some things for that, and she asked me if I would like to have a teacher. For me it was impossible, because I was 20, and not seriously involved in life. I had started studies, but not seriously - and I felt like a poet, a bit, because I read so many books and believed in all that. I was at a distance from life - I wait, anything can happen, I can die, I have no money, nothing to do.

But I tried to meet a teacher, and I met a monsieur who was very nice, gentle with me, very human - he helped me feel good, and he told me about Rena Shereshevskaya, my teacher now, and he said to me, “You have two ways now. If you want to be safe and earn money as a teacher you can go to that school, and if you are crazy and want to make some kind of sacrifice, you can meet Rena Shereshevskaya, because she prepares people for competitions.”

So she's a private teacher?

No, she teaches at the Rueil-Malmaison school. It's a superieur regional school for professional music study. She graduated from the Moscow Conservatory under Lev Vlasenko.

How did you relate to her?

I think I have always been culotté. A culot. [It means a kind of bolshie contrarian] I cannot do anything without provocation. When I entered her class it was a kind of provocation. And what was fabulous is that for her it became at once a great challenge. I could not expect that, because I went there only to provoke, because I knew she prepared for competitions, and I  loved music and believed in music and laughed at competitions. And I wanted to show her how involved I was in music, because I am able to play some things by ear only - I have a great memory. I tried this, for provocation, but she took it very seriously from the beginning. For me I began to be scared, because I could not realise she would go so far. Me, no, at the beginning, but her, yes.

That was four years ago?


[Shereshevskaya says in her interview that Debargue had no stable home, and she asked his grandparents to take him into their one-bedroomed home near Paris. He still has no piano]

I am trying to understand how this “auto-didact” is here at this competition.

Yes, it’s a bit crazy for me. I find it funny to see some people who go to lessons about writing music. For me it's a joke. I would like to say to them, "Ok, stay at home, open the score and enter it, in it for hours, live in it, and then you will understand something." But some teachers stand up and, "Oh it's me who knows how to compose in the style of Mozart or something." I am a little bit angry, I think. It's something I cannot stand.

Were you feeling angry when you went on stage to play those concertos in the final?

I was very tired. I just tried to do my best, any way I could - that’s all I can say.

How did you feel with the orchestra? Did you feel them with you, or were you trying to culotter them?

What I would like to do is to conduct myself. Not because it's me, I am the star and all that. It’s because I found some things in the score and it would be great if the orchestra could do this - well, if they could not, never mind, but I wanted them to know how I felt. I had no time to tell them what I felt about this place or that place in the music, but I just wanted them to know.

So the orchestra and the audience had to listen, to wake up.

Something happened.

How many concertos can you play? If an agent comes and wants to book you?

Mozart 24, Bach F minor,  Beethoven 2nd, Liszt 2nd, Prokofiev 2nd, Rachmaninov 2nd, Tchaikovsky 1st, and I would like to learn Brahms 1 & Rachmaninov 3. So maybe six.

“Grigory Sokolov plays one programme for the whole year. No discussion - he is the best”

But you have such a memory that I imagine you will learn the repertoire quickly.

What is important is to play great music. Grigory Sokolov plays one programme for the whole year. No discussion - he is the best.

Richter used to do the same thing, didn’t he? During this whole experience, was there a moment when you felt happiness as you played? Glad in the moment.

My second round. The solo recital part and the Mozart. Now I can say that I felt warm then. It was impossible to say immediately after, but now I can say that.

Were you frightened when you went through the final? You said you were very tired.

Physically. What is most exhausting is not the playing but the waiting. I played last year in jazz clubs, four or five days a week from 8 to midnight, it was not exhausting. and the rest of the day I was practising. The jazz clubs was to make money but it was ok, because I don't have to wait. But here I’ve been here one month and only played about three hours total. It is all that waiting that makes me tired.

Have you made friends here?

Yes, Alexander Ullman from Great Britain [who exited in round 1], and Sergey Redkin [another finalist], who was my room mate, very talented.

How do you relax?

I don’t relax. I don’t believe in relaxing. You are English - do you know of the composer Doreen Carwithen? She is a fantastic composer who wrote concertos in post-romantic style like Rachmaninov. British music is incredible, you know. There is Britten of course, but... what is the name of that cello sonata...? Edmund Rubbra. And Frank Bridge. I know it’s strange because many pianists are not interested in the literature of music. I play Medtner and Alkan, friend of Chopin. Fantastic. So many people say it’s boring, but I will show them.

What will your next concert be?

I would like to do a recital of Scarlatti and Scriabin. I would like to record all Medtner’s sonatas.

There must be so many people here in the industry who can help you.

It’s been strange for me, because for four years I have been alone in Paris with only my teacher. Alone. Completely alone, with my little beer at night, the windows, the books, the cigarettes. And now there is something happening, and it’s “What do you want to do, what do you want to play?”

Does it feel good to be part of the family?

Yes. But I am only using 20 percent of my brain here, my life is not normal, I have to rearrange it.

Will you go back to Paris?

No. I will stay in Moscow for some time.

My friend who likes jazz wants to know who your favourite jazz pianists are.

Thelonious Monk, then Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner and Peterson. They are real heroes to me, better than classical pianists, because they are laughing, they are not polite, they are just laughing at death. I would like to be just like them.

     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

The first interview with Lucas Debargue