Yvonne Lefébure’s first piano lessons were with a local teacher in Saint-Mandé. She was then enrolled at the École de Sèvres, and in 1906 was introduced to Marguerite Long who advised her parents that Yvonne should study music seriously. Lefébure joined the Paris Conservatoire, and when only nine years old won the Gold Medal in the Concours des Petits Prodiges. At fourteen she won a premier prix from Cortot’s class playing Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata Op. 57. Not long after, Lefébure made her debut with the Concerts Lamoureux and Camille Chevillard, playing the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 by Saint-Saëns; and she also performed with the Concerts Colonne and Gabriel Pierné. Lefébure’s mother was concerned by the child’s public exposure and did not want her daughter to have the life of a prodigy. Lefébure returned to the Conservatoire where she took classes in counterpoint, harmony, accompaniment and fugue. By the time she left the Conservatoire she had won a premier prix in all of these disciplines.
In spite of these successes, Lefébure realised that she had not benefited from Marguerite Long’s teaching and that, although she had later studied with Cortot, she needed to completely re-learn her piano technique. Lefébure achieved this herself with no other teachers, a fact that led her to realise that teaching would have to take a prominent position in her life and career; she taught at Cortot’s École Normale de Musique from the age of twenty-six until the outbreak of World War II. However, Lefébure still continued to perform, and in 1933 played for the first time in England. At her debut at the Wigmore Hall she played works by Bach (in transcription), Mozart, Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations Op. 120, some Debussy and Fauré, and Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 31. A critic commended her variety which ‘…was obtained by sheerly musical thought, working through a highly serviceable technique, controlled for the most part by a fine sensibility, and delivered to the audience with true Gallic dash.’ When Lefébure returned to London three years later her ‘dashing’ style was again applauded. When referring to her performance of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor a critic of The Times wrote, ‘Its controlled exuberance made one laugh with sheer pleasure – which is one of the rarest of musical emotions.’
After World War II Lefébure appeared in the United States, at New York’s Town Hall, and held a teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1950 she was asked by Pablo Casals to perform at the first Prades Festival, and she played frequently with the famous cellist. Lefébure also performed the complete violin sonatas by Beethoven with Sándor Végh. Throughout her career Lefébure championed French music. Whilst still a student she had known Ravel, who gave her advice on the performance of his Jeux d’eau and Toccata from Le Tombeau de Couperin. She also played works by Dukas, Debussy, Fauré and Maurice Emmanuel. In 1964 Lefébure founded the Juillet Musical de Saint-Germain-en-Laye where she gave courses in interpretation. Lefébure continued to teach even into her seventies and eighties, with the same zest for life and music that she brought to her own performances. Her most well-known pupils include Samson François and Imogen Cooper. After her death an international competition was established in 1990 which bore her name.
Lefébure’s first recordings were made for French HMV in the mid 1930s. She recorded an extremely fine performance of the rarely played Variations, Interlude and Finale on a theme of Rameau by Paul Dukas. Her strong and formidable technique is evident, as is her great musical intelligence, attributes that underline many of her recordings. Lefébure made some recordings for Le Chant du Monde in the early 1950s, mainly of Chopin mazurkas plus a scherzo, and some Fauré and Roussel. In the mid-1950s Lefébure recorded for French EMI and from these sessions come excellent versions of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in E major Op. 109 and A flat major Op. 110. She also recorded the ‘Diabelli’ Variations Op. 120 at this time, and arrangements of Bach by Liszt, Busoni and Myra Hess. These recordings have been reissued on compact disc, as has a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor K. 466 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Wilhelm Furtwängler from 1954. Another performance of the same work from the Casals Festival at Perpignan in 1951 was issued by Sony on compact disc in 1994.
The French label Solstice has issued four compact discs of Lefébure’s recordings for French radio including a disc of interviews. Lefébure’s repertoire was wide; she played Bach, Rameau, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Bartók and many French composers. A second volume of radio recordings includes impressive accounts of Liszt’s Ballade in B minor, La Lugubre Gondole II and the Spinnerlied from Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer recorded in 1971. During the 1970s and 1980s Solstice recorded Lefébure in much of her repertoire. There are at least eight compact discs containing Bach partitas, a fine Toccata in D major BWV 912 and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903; the last three Beethoven piano sonatas and ‘Diabelli’ Variations Op. 120; a disc of Fauré and Dukas; one of Ravel; an engaging performance of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat major D. 960 recorded at the age of eighty; and Schumann’s Davidbündlertänze Op. 6, an excellent version of Kinderszenen Op. 15 and his Piano Concerto Op. 54 with l’Orchestre de l’ORTF and Paul Paray. There is also a disc of works by Debussy and Maurice Emmanuel who dedicated works to Lefébure. In 2001 the label Coup d’Archet issued two compact discs of Lefébure’s radio recordings. One is of Beethoven’s first and last piano sonatas plus eight bagatelles, the other of Ravel; his Piano Concerto from a broadcast of 1959 and Le Tombeau de Couperin from 1955.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).