Debargue is a major artist, no contest

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Singing Valentines / Valentins chantants

When Lucas Debargue won fourth prize at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, many spectators took the apparent slight as a ringing endorsement of his individuality. Sunday in the Maison symphonique the 29-year-old Frenchman made apparent why he is by far the most talked-about laureate of that contest, not to mention one of the new celebrities of the piano world.

It was substantially a bravura program, not that anything came across as simply or solely mechanical. In Liszt’s Dante Sonata Debargue seemed to embody the composer’s concept of a transcendental artist, rendering the flurries of octaves with a clarity that made them sound not so much easy as otherworldly. The range of colour was extraordinary, yet nothing sounded garish or overwrought. This was a complete performance, Lisztian in its heroic spirit and perhaps even Dante-esque in its imaginative scope.

Debargue was wise to place this last on the docket, following Nicolai Medtner’s Sonata No. 2 in G Minor, an intriguing if prolix piece in one movement that benefited mightily from the pianist’s ear for balance and ability to lend definition to dense textures. Prior to the break we heard Ravel’s hyper-difficult triptych Gaspard de la nuit, richly ornamented in Ondine, the rippling first movement, but also songful and shaped in a dramatic arc. Debargue’s mastery of the pedal was evident in the rapid arpeggios and glissandi but also in relatively spare passages that seemed to fill the hall with quiet lustre. Le Gibet was as slow as it could be, with tension sustained, and the concluding Scarbo vaulted forward boldly.

The afternoon began with six Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, a composer for whom Debargue feels a particular admiration, if the recent Sony Classical box of no fewer than 52 of these works (written originally for harpsichord) is any measure. His is not an orthodox view, even by pianistic standards. The dynamic range was wide; many were the slowdowns and scampers. These were fascinating performances, but the cumulative effect was of a gallery of moody pieces that lacked somewhat the wit and charm that Horowitz (and a few other masters) gave them.

The fact that I must evoke such a name to find a comparison unfavourable to Debargue gives you a sense of the level of artistry we are dealing with. There were two encores, the pensive Sonata K. 32 by Scarlatti and an elaborate Toccata of his own invention.

Debargue emerged from the wings without his jacket for the final encore. Otherwise his stage comportment was formal and orderly. An open collar these days is hardly the stuff of controversy. Apparently the pianist prefers low stage lighting. OK with me.

This Show One presentation filled the parterre but the upper levels were closed. Perhaps Debargue will remain a connoisseur item for a few years. But he is definitely here to stay.

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Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.

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