Julien Libeer: Music in Dialogue and Constant Flux

Nélida Nassar  12.17.2015

Julien Libeer took the stage at St. Maron Church in a concert featuring an extensive program of the music of Haydn, Beethoven, Liszt transcription of Bach, Chopin and Ravel. The young Belgian pianist, who has already garnered the Juventus Award and widespread praise for his playing, is an artist in residence at the Queen Elizabeth Music Chapel in Brussels. A student of Maria João Pires, he is part of her ‘Partitura Project,’ which offers a warm working relationship between artists of different generations and seeks to thwart the “star system” by presenting an alternative approach in a world of classical music too often dominated by competitions and professional rivalry. Although it is not in keeping with the spirit of the ‘Partitura Project,’ that the pianist chose to perform as a soloist for his first appearance in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

The evening began with Haydn’s Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII 6, “Un piccolo divertimento” that is among the composer’s most popular piano works. In this set of double variations, Libeer’s straightforward performance was robust and focused.

This piece was followed by one of Beethoven’s last works, the Sonata in E major opus 109, which is written on a smaller scale and has a more intimate character than many of the composer’s other works of the same period. Placed in dialogue with the previous piece, opus 109 recalls the plain style of his early, Haydn-influenced sonatas. It is noteworthy for the liberties it takes with the sonata form and for other innovations, some of which even anticipate the music of the 20th century. Libeer seduced his audience with the warmth of his playing and was admirably alert to the rapid fluctuations of Beethoven’s emotional landscape.

The opening movement of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, transcribed by Liszt for the piano as part of the “six great preludes and fugues,” was delivered with a dark turbulence. Its violent energy was barely held in check, as if poised on the cusp of anarchy, and Libeer negotiated the great variety of tempi with reconceptualization, honesty and fluency.

In the second half Libeer played one of Chopin’s last compositions, the Barcarole in F-sharp minor, Op. 60, with its richly-colored tonal palette and alternating strong and weak beats, the latter suggestive of a rowing rhythm. A work remarkable for both its continuity and diversity, it displays unexpected dramatic intensity in its soaring climax, which contrasts starkly with the tenderness of the more introspective sections. Libeer’s rendition of the melancholic melodic line slowly melted away into a dream-like fantasy. His mastery of technique was especially in evidence here.

The concert closed with Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, a “French suite” for piano in six movements, based on 18th century models. The work was not only an hommage to the composer’s musical predecessors but also a tribute to friends who died while serving in the First World War. In this piece Libeer’s performance was far from being technically virtuosic; it also lacked expressive and poetic depth.

The pianist appeared to have chosen the program with a great deal care. Not only it did allow him to demonstrate his musical proficiency; it also presented a sequence in which each piece was informed by its predecessor.

For those two hours, where we have wished to discover and be captivated by Libeer’s piano music and talent, we were a bit disappointed especially in the Ravel. Coining his teacher phrase that Technique doesn’t Exist, he confirmed that music is an extension of his being. Taxonomy aside an étude in the hands of the masters can be transformed into unforgettable works of art.