VEleven years ago, the equally tasteful and expressive Polish pianist Ewa Kupiec released a CD dedicated to the music of Fryderyk Chopin. She had the Polish title “Żal”. The word can mean a lot: regret, sorrow, disappointment, bitter sadness. Chopin himself used this to describe the keynote of his music, as well as his complicated relationship to the Polish homeland, which he had left when he was twenty. In “Żal”, Chopin feels grief over the loss of his homeland and anger over the humiliation of Poland, but also contempt for the intellectual narrowness within Poland and below the Poles. His companion in exile in Paris, the poet Adam Mickiewicz, had reduced his relationship to Polish compatriots to the formula: “Everything for you, nothing with you”.
Now “Żal” appears again as the title of a CD, written by the Sony Classical label without the corresponding Polish special characters. It is an album that the French pianist Lucas Debargue, artistically idiosyncratic and highly gifted, human with often strange views, dedicated to the Polish composer and pianist Miłosz Magin together with the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer and his chamber orchestra, the Kremerata Baltica. Magin was born in Łódż in 1929 and died in Paris in 1999, where he had lived most of his life. Debargue, he writes in the booklet, got to know Magin’s music through his first piano teacher Christine Muenier.
It is remarkable that Muenier is so kindly considered in the memories of this pianist. In his earlier interviews, Debargue, who finished fourth in the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition in the summer of 2015, did not speak well of France and its piano tradition. Like an agent trained by Dostoevsky, Debargue sang the praises of Russian kindness and depth of soul and for years looked down with contempt at his own Western origins. Now we know that his teacher Rena Schereschewskaja, who brought him to prominence in Moscow, apparently wanted to exert too much influence on the further career planning of her protégé, which is why he is increasingly distancing herself from her.
The French and Polish music by Magin, which Debargue has now recorded, is typical of the type of art that is now considered “contemporary” and penetrates the vacuum that the avant-gardes with theirs international stylewho deliberately erased their origins. The pianists Daniil Trifonov, Michail Pletnjow and Evgeni Kissin also write such music; Debargue himself suggests that he wants to do the same. It is tonal, nostalgic music that tries to pick up where Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev or Poulenc left off: music of nostalgia and of excuses, especially what has happened since then. The “Concerto rustico” for violin, strings and timpani begins like a neoclassical Prokofiev, in which a gorgeous chanson writer has put pain-relieving dreams before the motor skills of the forced action break loose again. All of this in the character of a Polish dance, the Krakowiak. If such optimistic folklorism came from the Soviet Union, one would speak of “composers’ association music”.
Magin is best where, like Francis Poulenc, he ties in with chanson in his “Improvisations” or with the music of Maurice Ravel and Gabriel Fauré. The introductory Andante for violin and piano from 1963 is a moving piece of sadness bleeding inward, like a testament by Jehan Alain, who died young in the war. Debargue and Kremer also play this music with a fine-nerved coolness of propriety that shrinks from overreaching appropriation through sentimentality.
This CD is symptomatic of a self-unhappy present and must be taken seriously: It tells – albeit somewhat comfortably – of modern experiences of withdrawal from home and the inability to find security in the musical nowhere. So you helplessly long for yesterday’s sweetness.