Dmitry Masleev may have won the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition, but the buzz back in 2015 was all about Lucas Debargue, the dynamic, edgy young Frenchman who took out fourth place as well as the influential Moscow Music Critics Association Prize. It was Debargue who landed a lucrative Sony contract, and in this, his first ever documentary film, Debargue’s university colleague Martin Mirabel follows his friend over a year capturing the highs and lows in a highly accomplished musical documentary.

Made when Debargue was 25, we start with that win in Moscow: Gergiev applauding in the wings and a smiling Vladimir Putin in the audience. From there on it’s a far more subdued affair with Debargue, an intense, articulate young man who obsesses about failure and questions his vocation – or at least his commitment to the concert platform – more than he seems to take pleasure in the endless round of touring and glad-handing his new life demands.

“Lucas was always rushed in his emotions – his fingers were flying all over, like lunatics – like him,” says his marvellously hands-on teacher Rena Shereshevskaya – a sequence where she pulls apart his overly tepid approach to Chopin’s Grand Valse Brilliante is most revealing. (She says he’s not ready to play it as an encore – he plays it anyway: “I was ready to have a heart attack,” she says, before admitting “I was wrong – he added Lucas Debargue – and it was a delicious salad.”)

The pianist met the filmmaker in 2008, a period of much drinking, talking about art, movies and literature, and especially smoking (the pianist is an unrepentant nicotine addict throughout the film). Focused, yet slightly wayward, and a bit of an angry young man, Debargue (quite reasonably) finds the experience performing concertos – i.e. one rehearsal to merely finalise details – unsatisfactory. He hates inertia, would rather make a mistake – a fair few of which we get to hear – than sit back in his comfort zone. “Hazardous, edgy and alive,” is how he says he wants it.

We feel the pressure on the road, all the different pianos, good and bad, humanity swarming all around him – “my memory was like Swiss cheese, he laments at one point” – and witness a tendency to spiral into a slough of despond composed of his own dissatisfaction. On the other hand, chamber music can make him whole again, He clearly finds strength in collaborative camaraderie, and is at his happiest jamming in a Chicago jazz club.

And then the new horrors to be found in the recording studio where Debargue feels hemmed in and partially hamstringed deprived of the spontaneity of the concert hall.  “As soon as you play a note it destroys the masterpiece – it deteriorates note by note,” he despairs.

There are no complete performances here (though there are two bonus features of works by Ellington and Medtner) but we do sense the thrill as Debargue tests his emotional limits in Gaspard de la Nuit. We also hear a young man interrogating his younger self: “I thought discipline was idiotic – I used to smirk at the idea of practise,” he admits.

Elsewhere we get to hear some of his compositions – clearly an important element in his creative life. They are tonal, melodic, and with jazz inflections, all of which is important to Debargue who believes that music should speak to everyone.

Throughout the film the future is constantly under scrutiny. Will he keep playing? He often says that he will not, says Mirabel, but then four years on here he still is. Such are the enigmas of one of classical music’s more interesting artists.

Title: Lucas Debargue: To Music – A film by Martin Mirabel
Performer: Lucas Debargue p
Label: Naxos 2110639 (DVD)