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COUP 008 - Yvonne Lefébure



Ravel Piano Concerto/Le tombeau de Couperin. Radio Orchester Beromünster, conductor Jean-Marie Auberson.

With kind permission of Radio DRS



Sleeve Notes

Yvonne Lefébure was born on June 29 1899 in Ermont, Seine-et-Oise. Her father, a financier, was a co-founder of 'La Voix de son Maitre' (HMV France). By the age of four, Yvonne was already so entranced by the piano that she chose it before playing with school friends. Recognising her fledgling talent, her parents hired a piano teacher from nearby Saint-Mandé, before enrolling her in L'Ecole de Sèvres. In 1906, she was introduced by a relation to Marguerite Long who advised her parents that Yvonne must study music seriously. Sponsored by Cortot, she was successfully enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire. At nine she won the Gold Medal in the Concours des petits prodiges with another gifted little girl, the violinist Jeanne Gautier.

In 1912 she won First Prize for Piano in Cortot's class with Beethoven's Appassionata. Soon after, she made her public debut playing Saint-Saëns' Concerto in G with the Concerts Lamoureux under Camille Chevillard. A tiny, pretty young girl with long blonde hair, she caused a sensation, particularly because of the contrast between her appearance and the power of her playing. Concerned by the possible effects of such early exposure, Madame Lefébure demanded that Yvonne attend composition, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, and piano accompaniment classes. She continued to win first prizes in all her subjects. She showed particular interest in the accompaniment class, especially in the reduction of full orchestral scores for the piano. "It's the most fascinating class at the Conservatoire", she later remarked.

While her career could have continued quite happily, Yvonne grew to feel that there were certain weaknesses in her playing. She realised that what she had learned from Marguerite Long was not right, that her technique was old fashioned. So great was the contradiction between her very modern musical intelligence and her technique, she believed that her very artistic survival was at stake. She could see no future for her career without radical change. She later admitted in an interview for Le Monde de la Musique: "...I played the Etudes Transcendantes by Liszt, Mephisto, everything. But when you develop a critical sense, you realise that it's not good at all. So I started learning everything again from the beginning. So ultimately, who am I the pupil of? Of Yvonne Lefébure! Madame Long? It was nothing. I stayed one year in her class, but then...." This revelation was to determine her vocation for teaching. To learn how to learn - this became her credo.

"I play like a man. I only like big playing, powerful playing," she said, and critics were always impressed by the intensity of her playing. From 1934 - 'She is a born artist. From a purely pianistic point of view her playing is powerful, captivating, with colossal strength. Had we listened with closed eyes, we couldn't have believed it was a woman's performance'.

Her early fascination for piano reductions of orchestral scores became integral to her approach, spurred on by her deeper insights into Beethoven's piano work. "I try not to play the piano but to play the orchestra". Of the pedal, she said, "it's my speciality". The composer Virgil Thompson wrote after attending a recital in New York: 'One of Miss Lefébure's most impressive achievements is the accuracy with which she can strike whole chords from a height of fifteen inches above the keyboard, strike them with perfect note-balance and agreeable tone at any speed and at any degree of loudness or softness. Her musical differential between time and accent also aids orchestral evocation, because melodic passages, as of the belcanto instruments, are played without down-beat stresses, the accentual pattern being rendered, as in real orchestral playing, by sharp pings, deep bell strokes and other articulations recalling those of harp, bow-heel and the orchestra's percussion group.'

When still a student, she met Ravel. "Without saying why, he wasn't satisfied with the way Jeux d'eau was being interpreted. I sat at the piano and played the piece with a certain attack. And Ravel said, 'I entrust the tradition to you.'" "The Toccata from Le Tombeau de Couperin is one of Ravel's most difficult piano pieces. However he was not at all satisfied with it. He once said to me, 'As piano writing, the finale of my concerto is how I should have liked my Toccata to be, but failed to make it. The last page is downright clumsy, too difficult', and to my surprise he added, 'If you play it, do try to disencumber the writing a bit.'"

It is no surprise that this pianist, so passionately fond of the orchestral luminosity she could conjure from her instrument, would always love the man who could be considered 'king of orchestrators' among all composers. Indeed, Ravel composed many of his piano works in order to orchestrate them. It was entirely natural that Yvonne Lefébure would feel at home in Ravel's universe. A champion of his Concerto, she performed it more than a hundred times. She called it "a music of perfect form, a true ellipse". Moreover, "The pianist must be able to imitate all the instruments". Ravel was to tell Cortot, "It is a concerto in the strict sense of the term, written in the spirit of Mozart or Saint-Saëns...I think the music of a concerto can be happy and brilliant; it is not necessary that it pretends to be deep, with dramatic effects." He had first considered calling it 'Divertissement'.

© Jean-Marc Harari/Glenn Armstrong 2001

Thanks to Rémi Vimard


Track listing

Maurice Ravel

Piano Concerto in G Major

  1. Allegramente
  2. Adagio assai
  3. Presto

Le Tombeau de Couperin

  1. Prelude
  2. Fugue
  3. Forlane
  4. Rigaudon
  5. Menuet
  6. Toccata
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