Yvonne Lefébure - Une Légende du Piano

rec. 1951-1983
SOLSTICE SOCD321/44 [24 CDs: ca 27 hrs]

The long-lived pianist Yvonne Lefébure died in 1986 and to mark the thirtieth anniversary Solstice issued this vast box in 2016. She was a pupil of Maurice Emmanuel and Charles-Marie Widor as well as Cortot and in turn she taught such young players as Dinu Lipatti, Samson François, Janina Fialkowska and Imogen Cooper.

Given inherent duplication, some of the works heard more than once are ones most central to her repertoire, there are fascinating perspectives since Lefébure was not a musician content simply to reprise performances. Her Mozart D minor Concerto, D466 with Pablo Casals directing his Prades forces in 1951 is murkily recorded and rather expansive whilst the 1954 version directed by Furtwängler in Lugano, which is one of the best-known of her recordings, has some ensemble slippages and a fitfully successful first movement cadenza. A 1958 performance with Pierre Dervaux finds less imaginative conducting but a more sympathetic basic pulse in the opening movement. The C minor Concerto, K491 with Fernand Oubradous conducting, dates from 1962 and features another wild cadenza and some glassy strings – but excellent solo projection.

Her Schumann Concerto performances were eagerly awaited. The 1955 performances with Pierre Dervaux has some muffled piano sound, a few fluffs and an incendiary left hand – too outsize. Teaming up with George Sébastian in 1964 she turns in a strong, confident performance pretty much on a par with the more famous Paul Paray traversal in 1970. It’s especially rewarding to compare and contrast the versions of the Ravel Concerto. There’s one from Radio Orchestra Beromünster under Jean-Marie Auberson, whilst the others were both were taped in 1970 - Orchestre Philharmonique de l’O.R.T.F. and Paul Paray, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Ernest Ansermet. The Auberson is notably successful, the Ansermet somewhat stymied by orchestral imperfections but the Paray is the most complete performance. It is at her regular tempi (she is actually consistent throughout in this respect) and both moving in the slow movement and rhythmically taut in the outer ones.

There is one Beethoven Concerto performance, an exciting, determined 1959 broadcast of the Fourth with the Orchestre National de France directed by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski but there is wealth of sonatas and variations to savour. She recorded Opp.109 and 110 along with the Diabelli Variations for EMI in the mid-1950s and these studio performances occupy disc four in the set. Op.109 is wonderfully stoic and unforced though her tempos in late Beethoven could be fast, as in the case of its finale. 1977 versions of both these sonatas re-emphasize her incisive tempi and unsentimental warmth of expression. When it comes to Op.111 (1959 and 1977) the differences are limited though she is slightly more expansive in the Arietta in 1977. She eschews a large number of repeats in the Diabelli both in this studio inscription (EMI, March 1956) and in the 1975 broadcast, which is marginally less successful. The Hammerklavier is very impressive though one must surrender to her sense of time – quite rapid – in the Adagio sostenuto to appreciate her conception of its architecture the more fully. Lefébure and Sándor Végh performed the complete cycle of Violin Sonatas together. Here we hear three sonatas plus the slow movement of Op.30 No.1. There is fine ensemble and the expected intensity and it’s especially rewarding to hear Végh’s legato in the slow movements of Op.12 No.3 and Op.23 in particular. He’s flat too often for comfort though, and his tone is inclined to roughness, which means Op.96 is less successful than anticipated.

Bartók’s Book VI of Mikrokosmos provides opportunities for animated vitality. Fortunately she is not percussive, and doesn’t sound metallic or detached in the six short character pieces. Henri Martelli (1895-1980) wrote his Five Dances Op.47 in 1941. They were taped here a few years later. These five movements offer a vivid sequence of stylised neo-classical dances. Some, like the penultimate dance, a passacaglia, are quite extended at five minutes in length. They are valuable discoveries and are played with great concern for balance and movement. There’s a 1960 performance of Henry Barraud’s 1939 Piano Concerto, given live with Manuel Rosenthal. Barraud (1900-97) writes a very breezy, extrovert neo-classical piece with a theatrical and dramatic slow movement. He has a sense of humour in the finale too. The Maurice Emmanuel Sonatines are deliciously done and in his Sonatine Op. 11 she’s also joined by two august representatives of the French wind school Ulysse Delécluse (clarinet) and René Le Roy (flute).

A significant part of her legacy lies in Debussy and Ravel. Images (both books) was taped very late, 1982-83 but there is a huge amount to admire here. Her technique is perfectly at the service of her vivid sense of characterisation – unexaggerated and yet pointed. The Préludes (Books I from 1970 and Book II from 1963) have chordal depth, droll wit and quite some legerdemain. Her Ravel – before whom she played – is fascinating. Whilst her 1975 Le Tombeau de Couperin is splendid, the 1969 version is better. However the January 1955 version, courtesy of Schweitzer Radio und Fernsehen, is better still – more involved, more sharply characterised and enshrining some of the very best playing in this set – which is saying something, given the excellence to be heard throughout. The three sets of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (May 1961, August 1961 and 1975) don’t offer as much in terms of interpretative difference but are wonderful to have: a surfeit of superb Ravel playing. Similarly, one can pick and choose from different versions of Jeux d’eau.

Her 1980 Fauré recital leaves a mixed impression; the Theme and Variations, Sixth and Thirteenth Nocturnes are also to be heard in 1961 London recordings and there are further examples of the Variations and Nocturne 13 from 1967. She can sound somewhat hasty from time to time and is no real match for a pianist I have repeatedly praised here for her famous Fauré recordings, now on Testament, Germaine Thyssens-Valentin.

From 1971 comes a sequence of works associated with Cortot, Chopin’s Mazurkas and the Barcarolle Op.60 with the Second Scherzo and Fourth Ballade, the latter especially good. The Mazurkas are perhaps best represented in her case by Op.17 No.4 which is fluid but expressive. She has a few trivial technical problems with the Barcarolle - she had small hands – but otherwise her control of its syntax is fine. More consistently impressive, though, are the pieces by Schumann, Papillons and the Fantaisie, which show what a tonally and expressively communicative artist she could be. She shows, as had Cortot before her, real affinities for Schumann’s music. There are two outstanding recordings of the Posthumous Variations, Op.13, a personal and personable (very Cortot-like in those respects) Kinderszenen, albeit it can be a bit heavy in places and Fürchtenmachen is a bit of a scramble, and Davidsbündlertänze which is purposeful but also deeply poetic.

There are two Schubert Sonatas. D960 was taped when she was 80 but there are few signs of any lessening of skill and it impresses by virtue of its reserved nobility of expression. There’s a similar quietly undemonstrative approach to the Adagio of D958 that ensures that the expressive proportions of the music are never imperiled.

Her Bach includes commercial recordings made in Paris for EMI in 1955. The Liszt transcriptions are commanding artifacts in her hands, and the two Chorale transcriptions, both very familiar ones by Busoni and Myra Hess, sit well together: indeed, she returned to both of these last works in her 1978 recitals with no less successful results. The Partitas No.1 BWV825 and No.6 BWV830 were taped in a church acoustic which encourages a spread to the sound but Lefébure plays with enviable contrapuntal clarity and musical directness. The Concerto, BWV1052 sports some audience rustling and sneezing but is played with robust assurance

There is much else to commend, too much indeed even in a review this size; I’d add Lefébure and Jeanne Gautier’s Mozart Violin Sonata K379 recording, full of sharp intensity and aria-like beauty. The final CD, No.24, features the pianist in conversations that were taped in 1976, 1979 and 1981. There is a splendid 59-page booklet with a wealth of musical and biographical detail and splendid photographs. If you can’t cope with CD24 you’ll find the original text with an English translation alongside. The CD cards are LP miniaturisations, such as are happily often to be found these days. A fine retro touch. This is an absolutely superb collection. The repertoire duplications offer real pleasure and serve only to deepen one’s respect for this vividly communicative and outstanding musician.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank (Recording of the Month)

CD 1
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Concerto pour piano K466 (Casals)
Sonate K457
Concerto pour piano K491 (Oubradous)

CD 2
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Concerto pour piano et orchestre op. 54 (Dervaux)
Papillons op. 2
Fantaisie op. 17

CD 3
Jean Sébastien BACH (1685-1750)
Prélude et Fugue BWV 543
Choral "Ich ruf zu dir" BWV 639
Fantaisie et Fugue BWV 542
Choral "Jesu bleibet meine freude" BWV 147
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Concerto pour piano K466 (Furtwängler)

CD 4
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonate No. 30 op. 109
Sonate No. 31 op. 110
Diabelli Variations op. 120

CD 5
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Concerto pour piano et orchestra (Auberson)
Le Tombeau de Couperin op. 68
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La boîte à joujoux

CD 6
Jean Sébastien BACH
Concerto BWV 1052 (Oubradous)
Prélude et Fugue BWV 848
Partita No. 6 BWV 830

CD 7
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Sonate pour piano & violon K379
Fantaisie K396
Fantaisie K475
Variations "Ah ! Vous dirais-je maman" K265
Concerto pour piano K466 (Dervaux)
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Variations op. H XVII/6

CD 8
Concerto pour piano No. 4 op. 58 (Skrowaczewski)
Sonate No. 1 op. 2
Bagatelles op. 119

CD 9
Sonate No. 29 "Hammerklavier" op. 106
33 Variations Diabelli op. 120

CD 10
Sonate No. 30 op. 109
Sonate No. 31 op. 110
Sonate No. 32 op. 111
6 Bagatelles op. 126
Bagatelle no. 3 op. 33
Bagatelle "pour Elise"
Sonate No. 8 "Pathétique" (mvt. 1 only) op. 13

CD 11
Préludes (livre II)
Maurice RAVEL
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
6ème Nocturne op. 63
13ème Nocturne op. 119
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
15 Valses et Ländler

CD 12
Préludes (livre I)
Etude pour les arpèges composés
Etude pour les sonorités opposées
François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733)
Les Baricades Mistérieuses
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Gavotte et 6 doubles
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Variations, Interlude et Finale

CD 13
Maurice RAVEL
Concerto pour piano et orchestra (Ansermet)
Jeux d'eau op. 30
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Le Tombeau de Couperin op. 68
Gabriel FAURÉ
Thème et Variations op. 73
13ème Nocturne op. 119

CD 14
Sonate No. 19 op. D 958
Concerto pour piano et orchestre op. 54 (Sébastian)
Carl Maria Von WEBER
L'invitation à la valse op. op.65

CD 15
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Intermezzo op. 119/1
Intermezzo op. 118/6
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Ballade op. S 178
La Lugubre Gondole No. 2 op. S 200
Chant des fileuses op. S 273
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Mazurka op. 41/2
Mazurka op. 17/4
Mazurka op. 7/5
Mazurka op. 56/2
Mazurka op. 7/3
Barcarolle op. 60
Scherzo No. 2 op. 31
Ballade No. 4 op. 52
Variations Posth. op. 13

CD 16
Sonate pour violon et piano No. 3 op. 12/3
Sonate pour violon et piano No. 4 op. 23
Sonate pour violon et piano No. 6 (mvt. 2) op. 30/1
Sonate pour violon et piano No. 10 op. 96

CD 17
Maurice RAVEL
Concerto pour piano et orchestra (Paray)
Concerto pour piano et orchestre op. 54 (Paray)
Scènes d'enfants op. 15

CD 18
Gabriel FAURÉ
Thème et Variations op. 73
7ème Nocturne op. 74
1er Nocturne op. 33/1
2ème Impromptu op. 31
12ème Nocturne op. 107
5ème Impromptu op. 102
Variations, Interlude et Finale
Prélude elégiaque

CD 19
Images (1er Livre)
Images (2e Livre)
L'Isle joyeuse
Maurice EMMANUEL (1862-1938)
Sonatine IV
Sonatine III
Sonatine VI

CD 20
Maurice RAVEL
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Le Tombeau de Couperin op. 68
Jeux d'eau op. 30
Ma Mère l'Oye

CD 21
Sonate No. 21 op. D 960
Impromptu op. D 935, 142/2
Davidsbündlertänze op. 6
Variations Posth. op. 13

CD 22
Belá BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Mikrokosmos - VI. (6 Danses dans le rythme bulgare)
Henry BARRAUD (1900-1997)
Concerto pour piano (1939)
Henri MARTELLI (1895-1980)
Cinq Danses op. 47 (1941)
Sonatines op. 11 & 20
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
3 Pièces Op. 49

CD 23
Jean Sébastien BACH
Prélude et fugue BWV 543
Fantaisie chromatique et fugue BWV 903
Toccata BWV 912,
Partita no.  1 BWV 825
Prélude et fugue I, 8 du Clavier bien tempéré
Sicilienne du Concerto BWV 596
3 Chorals

CD 24
Entretien avec Bernard Deutsch (1981)
Entretien avec Laurent Asselineau suivi d’un cours d’interprétation (1978) Radioscopie avec Jacques Chancel (1976)
Participating artists:
Sandor VEGH
Gersende DE SABRAN

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