Lucas Debargue breathes new life into the harpsichord sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and presents works outside the standard piano repertoire.
The Parisian pianist has already climbed the pinnacle of piano artistry with Beethoven, Liszt and Ravel and unleashed full-blown romantic thunderstorms with Schubert’s A-minor Piano Sonata no. 14 and the madcap finale of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.
Now, on his new album, Debargue devotes himself completely to Domenico Scarlatti. He already played four of this Italian master’s sonatas on his highly acclaimed début album. Germany’s Der Spiegel waxed ecstatic: “Debargue’s Scarlatti recalls his mighty predecessors. He displays the subtle touch and feeling once bestowed on these miniatures by Vladimir Horowitz and imparts new sound to Scarlatti’s keyboard music. … Debargue touches the outer limits of expression between joylessness and rapture: one may find it overwrought, but it’s never less than gripping. And then there’s the gentle Glenn Gould touch.”
Debargue is excited at his new project: “Scarlatti is inspiring. He’s the centre of my musical thought as regards music for keyboard instruments.” He goes on: “I took it as a sort of personal mission to finally do something with him.”
Though Scarlatti generally lacks a firm place in the repertoire – he’s not heard very often and is almost never the mainstay of a recital – he’s one of those milestones that every pianist must turn to. He was born in Naples in 1685, the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach. But unlike his versatile German colleague he was primarily a harpsichordist, a man of soft but very precise nuances. The 555 harpsichord sonatas form the core of his compositional output.
“Lucas Debargue is an exception among today’s rarefied piano virtuosos.” (Der Spiegel) He’s also known for his open-mindedness: he left conservatory at the age of 15 and played electric bass in a rock band. Then he studied literature. But again and again he felt drawn back to the classical piano. In 2015 he caused an international sensation at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, playing Medtner and Ravel. Though he didn’t win, the jury squabbled over this very fact, and he was allowed to play at the prize-winners concert. It was his springboard to fame. Since then he’s been under contract to Sony Classical. The Scarlatti retrospective on four CDs is now his fourth release.
It has turned out bright and gleaming. Debargue completed the recording in Berlin in a mere five days, playing in the Church of Jesus Christ at the Free University in Dahlem – the same studio where Karajan once recorded. Debargue speaks of “perfect conditions”.
“In Scarlatti we hear influences from southern Spain, from Andalusia, but also from the Baroque,” Debargue explains. “Often there’s something crazy as well, this urge to probe what keyboard instruments are capable of saying at all. I’m fascinated by the balance in this music.” To fetch Scarlatti into the modern age, Debargue played on a Bösendorfer 280. He performed completely without pedal – against the instrument’s grain, so to speak – and found a jeu perlé as bright as sunlight. We hear the formal riches of Scarlatti in a new way. The insistent octaves of Sonata K.14 take on an amazing resemblance to Beethoven.
Debargue’s plan was to rescue the Italian master from early music. True, there exist fabulous recordings, he confides, but modern ears can hardly listen to them any more. “I hear more harpsichord in them than Scarlatti,” he explains. “The instrument is always in the foreground. We rarely perceive the structure and form of these often highly complex and intelligent sonatas.”
Now all this has changed. Moreover, Debargue has sought out a cross-section of Scarlatti’s oeuvre. Here, too, the Parisian pianist exposes listeners to new sonic experiences, presenting works well outside normal concert fare. His repertoire ranges from the deeply baroque F-major Sonata K 6, where the left hand functions like a thoroughbass, to K 526, an explosion of colours whose deftly interwoven legato passages already presage the sound of romanticism.