Monday, April 3, 2023

Philharmonie de Paris, Cité de la Musique, 221 Av. Jean Jaurès, 75019 Paris

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

One of those showcase evenings at the Philharmonie. Packed house, cameras (filmed by Marc Pasteau, blue-light backdrop), masterworks, encores, Parisian provenance seeding the programme. An artist who always commands notice – thirty-two-year-old Lucas Debargue. Pianist, man of literature, composer, relative late-starter. A Stephen Paulello three-metre concert grand of unique modern specification –102 keys (low C to high F ivories), straight-strung, hybrid-scaled, a hand-crafted instrument, its maker says, that you have to “taste” to get any idea of its heart and soul.

Big things were promised – and largely delivered. Mozart’s A-minor Sonata K310 (all repeats), written in Paris around the time of his mother’s death in the summer of 1778, was all stride, fevered pulse and symphonic momentum, with a sonorously beautiful, melodically soaring Andante of a quality to savour. A strong closing Presto, too, though the butterfly cadences of the A-major material might perhaps have been more wistfully tailed off. To follow, a Chopin selection comprising the Second Ballade, C-sharp minor Prelude Opus 45, and Polonaise-Fantaisie. High-octane technique, right-hand voicings suspended across ebbing and flowing left-hand swells, paused silences, theatrical contrasts of soft and loud, storms and sunsets. A touch less convincing in the Polonaise were the ‘Aeolian harp’ patterns of the introduction and later, each ascending sequence curiously separated, counter to Chopin’s long legato slurs. Inexplicable too that the subtlety of the deliberated eleven-bar diminuendo into the final ff chord was morphed into a crescendo.

The titanic, kaleidoscopically structured G-sharp minor/A-flat first movement of Alkan’s Concerto for solo piano, eighth of the twelve Opus 39 Studies in Minor Keys (published in 1859), made up the second half. Uncut, though not without spills and splits along the way, this had its moments and brilliance, its throated maggiore glory – and was received rapturously. I wondered, nevertheless, at various of Debargue’s tempo and dynamic choices. Demonstrably, this was a composer-pianist performance in the mezzoforte to mezzofortissimo zone, big on projection and gesture, on blueprinting the structure, but noticeably less attentive in the pp-ppp or ff-fff spectrum, more than once reversing Alkan’s intentions (and textures). Ultimately, second subject and recitative lyricism notwithstanding, the result was fast and clamorous, bullishly inclined, rhetorically flung, Debargue’s pedalling and the roaring overtones of the eight-plus octaves of the piano tending to muddy and de-clarify the lower register. A light re-tuning during the interval wouldn’t have gone amiss.

‘Cantique des cantiques’ or ‘La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer’ from Alkan’s Opus 31 Préludes would usefully have tested other parameters. But it was Chopin, his long-time friend and neighbour, who got the encore nod. Berceuse, Opus 53 Polonaise (best left-hand octaves I’ve heard in quite a while, visceral and thrilling), Fourth Ballade – Paulello retiringly sharing the final curtain call.

Focussed multi-angle camera work, less ideal audio, the sound prone to stutter (both ‘live’ and on replay). (subscription)