Music

The real winner in the Tchaikovsky competition is the man who came last

Lucas Debargue, the 24-year-old French pianist with a riveting backstory, is the only competitor anyone is talking about

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

Lucas Debargue, a 24-year-old French pianist, came fourth in the finale of the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow on 30 June, yet he’s the only competitor anyone is talking about. Why?

The main reason is that they’re riveted by his backstory. Have you noticed how we all say ‘backstory’ these days, instead of boring old ‘background’? It’s defined as ‘the things that have happened to someone before you first see or read about that person in a film or story’. Neal Gabler wrote a book called Life: The Movie, about our entertainment-obsessed society’s urge to stretch and squash everything from terrorist attacks to an argument at the checkout into an imaginary plot. That doesn’t reflect well on us, but in the case of Lucas Debargue the urge is irresistible. His backstory belongs in a French film that would have music buffs complaining that this sort of thing never happens in real life.

Incredibly, he was self-taught until well into his teens, beginning with jazz. To quote my colleague Ismene Brown, in a Spectator blog post shared 3,700 times on Facebook, ‘he started playing a friend’s piano by ear, aged 11, and tinkered around until giving up at 17 and working in a Paris supermarket… Invited by his old home town to play in their local festival, he picked up the piano again and played so brilliantly that he was put in touch with a hot-house Russian piano coach in Paris. After four years, he was in the final of the Tchaikovsky competition, playing with an orchestra for the first time in his life.’

In the movie Debargue would come first rather than fourth (i.e. last). But that doesn’t matter, because in the eyes of the public he was the real winner. The Moscow Music Critics Association thought so, too, awarding him their prize for ‘the pianist whose incredible gift, artistic vision and creative freedom have impressed the critics as well as the audience’.


In other words, they told the jury to get stuffed — but, to be fair, the jury members were split and have been bitching about each other.

‘I’m not satisfied with the results of the competition,’ said Boris Berezovsky. ‘Our beloved Frenchman Lucas Debargue who deserved as a minimum a bronze, in my opinion even silver, was shifted to the fourth. Surprisingly, it was the decision of non-Russian jury members.’ To which British juror Peter Donohoe, writing on Norman Lebrecht’s blog, replied that ‘shit happens’ when you ‘apply democracy to something so subjective, abstract and variable as a music competition’.

It’s especially likely to happen when a young pianist is obviously indifferent to the conventions of the circuit. Martha Argerich resigned from the jury of the 1980 Chopin competition when the ‘genius’ Ivo Pogorelich was eliminated, having delivered wildly idiosyncratic performances while tossing back his Brat Pack hair. Debargue isn’t a narcissist or a pin-up like Pogorelich but he did wear an open-necked shirt in the final; a waxy-faced Putin — does he share an embalmer with Lenin? — didn’t look pleased. Also, Debargue’s new fans say he resembles a young Sartre, a back-handed compliment if ever there was one.

But what really shocked the jury, I suspect, was Debargue’s fingering. I’ve never seen anything like it. Scales played with only the thumb and index finger and his pinkie sticking up as daintily as Hyacinth Bucket’s. One piano teacher reportedly walked out in protest at this ‘amateur’ technique.

More fool him, I say. Debargue’s double octaves in the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto were just as fast as those of the conventionally gifted winner, Dmitry Masleev; they didn’t have the same gliding quality, but then Debargue isn’t really a Tchaik 1 sort of pianist. To hear him at his best, seek out his Gaspard de la nuit from round two. It’s the most frighteningly demanding piece Ravel ever wrote. Hundreds of young pianists can play it faultlessly — the world is oversupplied with aspiring virtuosos — but Debargue’s performance stands out. Perhaps it’s his weird fingering that gives him a special grip on its intricacies; perhaps it’s his intellect — he ‘argues’ the music with a confidence worthy of Richter.

The real injustice is that he was ranked on the basis of a Classic FM warhorse. It would be nice if, one day, organisers could summon up the nerve to get the concerto round out of the way before a solo finale. Better still, ditch these stupid competitions altogether.

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  • Annika

    Yes, Lucas Debargue is a genially gifted musician, but please, PLEASE!!! don’t start again with those such beloved in USA “stories” like “Netrebko was a charwoman at the Mariinsky when Gergiev has found her and brought her on stage”. Debargue is a student of Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, he is studying with Rena Shereshevskaya who is NOT a “hot-house Russian piano coach”, but a very good professor from Moscow teaching OFFICIALLY in France already since at least 20 years! A bit of respect please!!!

    • john

      Thank you ! Obviously a Genius but yes very well prepared to the competition. Plus the “magic”: two days before the competition his grandmother told him a family secret, her parents were russian emigrants Who fled the october revolution. Not only he played outstandingly well but he told russians about their own shared history. Isn’t it incredibly meaningful? At last a pianist who shows us what music really is about ! The era of great pianists is not gone, it’s coming back again !

  • Dominic Stockford

    He may well be brilliant, but going from 0 to 7 on the scale in 4 years doesn’t make him better than someone who only went from 7 to 8 in the same time.

    • There’s always one smart-arse in the crowd. If he can achieve this in four years think what the next four years will bring. Where will your “someone who only went from 7 to 8 in the same time” be in four years?

      • Dominic Stockford

        Dear Sir, you seem to have misconstrued my comment.

        Did I say he was not talented?
        Did I say that his rise is not remarkable?
        Did I say that his ability is in question?
        No, I said none of those things.

        What I did say though, was that none of those things mean that he was the best in the competition this year. He may indeed become the best in the world in the future, and the praise given him makes this sound quite possible. However, at the moment someone else played better than he did. Yes, they may never get beyond 8, and he may reach 10.1 (archery,centre bull) – but at this moment…. which is what all competitions are about.

        • Did I say he was not talented?
          Did I say that his rise is not remarkable?
          Did I say that his ability is in question?
          No, I said none of those things.

          There really wasn’t much point to your comment, was there? It added exactly zero.

          • Dominic Stockford

            People are disputing his loss on the grounds that he has great potential, I was pointing out that you don’t win a competition on potential, but on current ability.

          • I didn’t realise you were responding to “people (who) are disputing his loss on the grounds that he has great potential”. Especially as yours was the first comment on this thread and there doesn’t appear to be any reference in the article to support that contention.

          • Dominic Stockford

            1. My comment was not the first one on the thread.
            2. ‘I am not satisfied with the result of this competition’ the article quotes Boris Berezhovsky as saying. He wanting this chap to have ended up getting a medal of some colour. The article also clearly implies that others think the same, and think he should have won.

  • Lila

    Putin – Lenin. What for is it here?

  • Phillip Fawcett

    ‘Scales played with only the thumb and index finger and his pinkie sticking up as daintily as Hyacinth Bucket’s.’
    As an ‘amateur’ pianist, if I did that in a masterclass, I’d be picked up on it and it would be used as justification to keep me in amateur status and thus keep paying these people. Of course there are levels of ability and accomplishment, but also the industry is a f.ing racket.

    • itdoesntaddup

      It occurred to me that Damien Thompson has never seen the required fingerings for a chromatic scale in ABRSM piano exams. – e.g. starting on C# 3131231313123, where 1 is the thumb: the pinkie (5) never gets anywhere near playing a note.

  • Olga

    I really love Lucas Debargue but trying to glorify him by humiliating excellent Dmitry Masleev, discribing him as “conventionally gifted winner” is very low trick, I think

  • Neil Saunders

    This reminds me of Dirk Bogarde, as the aspiring concert pianist in the “Alien Corn” segment of the film “Quartet”. Even with (I think) Eileen Joyce brilliantly playing his demonstration pieces for him, he couldn’t persuade the expert witness he confidently summoned to convince his sceptical parents that he was anything more than a gifted amateur.

    I rather suspect that someone with Bogarde’s (male) looks in combination with the (in fact, very glamorous (if female)) Joyce’s brilliant playing, would have impressed a less severe judge than was supplied in the film (as portrayed by Françoise Rosay).

  • Peter Donohoe

    Everything I feel about the way the achievements of the five other finalists are being ignored has been written about elsewhere, so I will not repeat it here. However, I would like to point out that, regarding the following in the article [To which British juror Peter Donohoe, writing on Norman Lebrecht’s blog, replied that ‘shit happens’ when you ‘apply democracy to something so subjective, abstract and variable as a music competition’.], the latter segment of that occurs approximately 180 words and in a separate paragraph devoted to a different point BEFORE the former. In other words, sh1t does indeed happen, and not only during the competition itself! Have a look for yourselves: http://slippedisc.com/2015/07/tchaikovsky-backlash-a-judge-explains/

    • itdoesntaddup

      Well played, sir!

  • Sue Smith

    I suspect that ‘unconventional’ technique will ultimately let this musician down. Good fingering not only facilitates smooth playing but is better for the muscles and condition of the hands. Like Nadal, he might quickly end up with injuries after a seemingly phenomenal introduction. In short, I’d be surprised if he has the “staying” power.

    It’s highly amusing to hear all about the cat-fights and bitch-slapping behind the scenes. When I lived in Vienna I met a fellow who produces operas on a kind of ‘sub-contract’ basis for arts organizations and festivals. I said to him, “that must be just about the bitchiest world to which one could ever belong” and he replied, “you’d better believe it”!!

    And the great Richter was also self-taught, arriving at the Conservatory in his very late teens.

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