I became aware of pianist Lucas Debargue recently through his 2019 album of music by Domenico Scarlatti (reviewed here). On the strength of that recording I was anxious to hear him perform some of that music in concert, and the opportunity came when Debargue performed half a dozen Scarlatti sonatas, as well as music by Ravel, Medtner, and Liszt, at National Sawdust in Brooklyn last week.
The small venue combines intimacy with superb acoustics, especially for solo piano – a fine setting for what I can only describe as Debargue’s magnificent artistry. The crowd’s enthusiasm drew two encores.
The program began with a set of Scarlatti sonatas that seemed chosen to demonstrate the composer’s deeply thoughtful originality and broad emotional reach, as well as the performer’s expressive skill. Debargue seemed thoroughly at home on the venue’s Bösendorfer piano; in the Scarlatti its glistening clarity matches his nuanced application of assertiveness and delicacy and limned his interpretive subtlety.
Debargue’s creative approach to Scarlatti reminded me why I’ve always felt that composer’s hundreds of sonatas comprise some of the greatest music ever written for any instrument. At times, as in K27 with its crossing of hands and electric energy, the music even sounded modern. My perch directly above, in the single-row balcony, was perfect for observing the pianist’s technique, his large hands pouncing and chiseling, his pedaling minimal (as befits music written for the harpsichord).
That technique was well-nigh wizardly in the zippy K14, while the fluid tempos he took in K115 helped give it a symphonic sweep while revealing its forward-looking nature.
From the baroque-to-classical transition represented by Scarlatti, Debargue leaped forward into the Romantic era of Ravel, demonstrating continuities between the innovative Italian (born the same year as J.S. Bach) and the psychologically troubled Frenchman. For one thing, as Debargue writes in his program notes, “Just like Scarlatti, Ravel was obsessed with Spain.” But for Ravel it was a Spain of pain, as his “nightmarish triptych” – as Debargue describes his “Gaspard de la nuit” – shows.
In Debargue’s hands the piece was a kaleidoscopic revelation. Part of its brilliance lies in the uncomfortable duality of cloudy atmospherics and distinct melodies. Debargue brought this out with uncommon skill.
The slow section builds an amazing amount of movement and development around a single repeated note; Debargue expressed this as a bewildering multi-dimensionality.
A dense, Russian sort of gravity set in during the later climax, reinforcing a feeling a concentrated worldliness, which continued with Nikolay Medtner’s pungent Sonata in G minor, op. 22. To bring out that piece’s (as Debargue describes it) “gothic” Romanticism, the pianist took his accents aggressively, played crisply without over-reliance on the sustain pedal, and made of the work a propulsive journey through the gamut of emotions.
It’s been very nice to see Medtner’s music popping up more in concert programs, but this pairing of artist and composer was the most felicitous yet in my experience.
Studded with flatted fifths and chromatic ascents, Liszt’s “After a Reading of Dante” is more a triumph of pianism than an apotheosis of the Romantic spirit, especially in the wake of the Ravel and Medtner as performed by Debargue. Alternately lyrical and bombastic, it’s good, representative Liszt, and the pianist carried it off with as much understanding and brilliance as he did the rest of the program.
Still, Ravel, Medtner, and even Scarlatti seemed to speak more to our extraordinarily troubled times. Debargue reminded us that while art usually reflects the spirit of its age, it also speaks through the centuries, especially when individual composers and performers tap into their own unique chemistries. And reminded us that, for an evening at least, music can loft us into a balcony above the squabbling fray.