Even when I did not like and/or understand what I heard, Lucas Debargue’s recital made me think

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Scarlatti, Chopin, and Alkan: Lucas Debargue (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 22.6.2023. (MB)

Lucas Debargue © Thomas Morel-Fort

Scarlatti – Sonatas in A major, Kk208 and Kk24; in D major, Kk491; in D minor, Kk141
Chopin – Ballade No.2 in F major; Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.45; Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major, Op.61
Alkan – Concerto pour piano seul, Op.39 No.8: ‘Allegro assai’

Lucas Debargue has built a considerable reputation, both as pianist and composer, over the past few years. I have yet to hear his own music and this was my first encounter with him as pianist. Much in the first half of this Wigmore Hall recital, devoted to Scarlatti and Chopin, puzzled me, though a large audience reacted with great enthusiasm. It was in Alkan that he seemed most at home to me; or perhaps I should say it was with his Alkan that I felt most at home. For knowing now that Debargue is a composer as well as a performer, my sense that much of the Scarlatti and Chopin edged towards paraphrases, albeit using (almost) all the notes provided, on original works rather than performances of the works ‘themselves’ makes more sense. There is room for many approaches to repertoire and performance, and the polite, disarming way Debargue spoke, at the beginning of the second half, concerning Alkan left one in no doubt concerning his sincerity and dedication.

The four Scarlatti sonatas with which the programme began can rarely – no, never – have sounded like this from any other performer, regardless of instrument. I was intrigued by the beginning of Kk208: it sounded pristine, if often bizarrely deliberate. A sudden crescendo and quick withdrawal of that extra volume offered contrast, even if I struggled to understand why. It was pianistic and rhetorical, to the degree of well-nigh Chopinesque eruption in the bass, if not in a vein anyone might have expected. Its A major companion, Kk24, provided frenetic contrast, until falling into reverie. What I missed above all was harmonic rhythm, often indeed simple rhythm, but perhaps I was missing the point. Kk491 in D major was still highly inflected, though more recognisable and with greater momentum. There was no doubting the beauty of Debargue’s touch here, whether with utmost delicacy or fullness of tone in Scarlatti’s Iberian strumming of guitars. If Kk141 at times sounded more like Liszt or Bartók, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that; all three composers were poets of their instrument, clearly an aesthetic that appeals to Debargue as creative, as much as re-creative, artist. I wished it had settled, just once, so that I could have a sense of where it was going and where it had come from, but again perhaps that was the point. Mahan Esfahani’s immersive harpsichord recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last autumn (review click here) seemed to me far closer to performance of the works, without in any sense inhibiting interpretative freedom. Likewise Tamara Stefanovich (review click here) on the piano earlier last year. But as I said, there is room for many.

Chopin’s Second Ballade began with a greater sense (to my ears, at least) of line, although soon it also began to sound all too manipulated for manipulation’s sake. The idea of letting musical works speak ‘for themselves’ may be a chimera; it may be an undesirable chimera at that. It came to my mind more often, nevertheless, than I might have wished. The C-sharp minor Prelude, Op.45, still seemed listless or dreamlike, according to taste, but line was stronger again, as if this were a dark, yet moonlit improvisation. This I could certainly admire, even if it is not remotely how I hear it. With the Polonaise-Fantaisie, there was an undeniable fascination to what Debargue did with it, but a strangely distended reading, whatever the pianist’s evident conviction, left me bewildered.

The first movement of Alkan’s Concerto pour piano seul, a work I confess to knowing far less well, seemed to me to be played much ‘straighter’ and came as relief. Debargue’s careful-yet-not-too-careful distinction between ‘solo’ and ‘tutti’ helped prepare our ears and minds. More to the point, there was always a sense of where the music had come from and where it might be heading. It was, I think, a more ‘Classical’ as well as ‘classical’ reading and far more to both my taste and understanding. Debargue cared for both the formal outline but also the details that contributed to that outline. He also offered a far more varied palette, and much greater variegation of touch and tone. At last, I felt, here was musical development as I (Teutonically?) understood it. Ultimately, this turned out to be a Berlioz-like Romanticism, albeit for the piano, which worked very well.

As for the first half, I can well imagine Debargue’s approach appealing more to devotees of, say, Ivo Pogorelich and Khatia Buniatisvili than it did to me, though this seemed far less an ‘act’ than that of either. Even when I did not like and/or understand what I heard, it made me think — and there are worse things that. The encore, Miłosz Magin’s Nostalgie du pays, proved simple yet piquant, a loving contrast to what had gone before.

Mark Berry

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