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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91)
Piano Quartet in G minor, K478 [25:17]
Piano Quartet in E flat, K493 [26:54]
Piano Trio in G major, K564 [18:53]
Elly Ney Performs
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 12 in A flat, Op. 26
A film by Alfred Braun
Mondscheinsonate: Die Volkspianistin Elly Ney
Documentary directed by Axel Fuhrmann
Radio Feature ‘Elly Ney and her Chauffeur’ – recordings from the limousine, with Frithjof von Bodungen
Elly Ney (piano)
Wilhelm Stross (violin: K478)
Heinz Endres (violin: K493 & 564),
Ingo Sinnhofer (viola: K478)
Fritz Ruf (viola: K493)
Ludwig Hoelscher (cello)
Filmed or recorded in Germany: 1961 (Mozart), 1965 (Beethoven)
DVD region code: 0
Sound formats PCM Stereo/Mono (Ney performs)
Picture format: 16:9.
Audio Languages: German, French (English subtitles)
DVD9/NTSC
ARTHAUS MUSIK 109336 [DVD: 76 mins & 2 CDs: 125 mins]

Arthaus Musik have pulled out all the stops for this release, featuring the German pianist Elly Ney (1882-1968). 2018 is the 50th anniversary year of her death. Ney achieved fame as a renowned Beethoven interpreter and came to be known as 'The high priestess of Beethoven'. Some even remarked on a physical resemblance - the grim facial expression and the wild, unruly curly hair. At the time of her concertizing, Beethoven playing was headed by such luminaries as Walter Gieseking, Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Backhaus and Wilhelm Kempff. Ney broke the mould, conquering this male-dominated domain. She interpreted Beethoven's piano works with power, vitality, consummate musicianship and a compelling vision. When I listen to her recordings, what I hear is not a shrinking violet but a big-boned approach, notable for its muscularity and strength.

Elly Ney was born in Düsseldorf in 1882. It was her grandmother who instilled into her an early love of Beethoven. Her teachers included Isidor Seiss and Karl Bötcher in Cologne and, after winning the Mendelssohn Prize aged 16, she went on to study with Theodor Leschetizky and later with Emil von Sauer in Vienna. She taught for three years at the Cologne Conservatory, then decided her true vocation lay in performance. She launched her career as a virtuoso in Holland, then toured Europe and the United States. In 1911 she married the Dutch conductor Willem van Hoogstraten, with whom she had a daughter Eleonore (1918–2007). When the couple divorced in 1927 Ney married Paul Allais, an American coal dealer from Chicago. This union was short-lived and she eventually got back with van Hoogstraten. In 1927 she was honoured with the freedom of Bonn. In 1932 she founded the Elly Ney Trio with Wilhelm Stross (violin) and Ludwig Hoelscher (cello). After the war, the city of Bonn banned her from giving concerts. In 1952 she was named Honorary Citizen of Tutzing. In her last years she toured, specializing in Beethoven. She died in Tutzing in 1968.

Mondscheinsonate: Die Volkspianistin Elly Ney is a documentary directed by Axel Fuhrmann. It opens with German Luftwaffe planes dropping bombs on the British city of Coventry. Code named 'Operation Moonlight Sonata' this dreadful inferno was accompanied by Elly Ney playing the 'Moonlight' Sonata on German Radio. Enlisting the contributions and opinions of contemporaries, experts and musical researchers, Fuhrmann presents the life of the pianist, detailing her rapid ascent and later popularity in America. We start with her strict upbringing and her fleeing the parental home for Vienna. She became known as 'Hitler's pianist'. She was an ardent follower of the National Socialists, and intensely anti-Semitic, so much so that she refused to replace the Jewish pianist Rudolf Serkin in Hamburg in 1933, and supported the Nazi's efforts to remove Jews from important posts and ban them from performing. She did undergo the denazification process after the war but, as Andreas Hoelscher, son of the cellist Ludwig comments, neither she nor Ludwig Hoelscher admitted their guilt. She became a 'fallen angel' of the musical world. We have to separate her appalling behaviour from her artistic achievements.

The contributions by pianist Ragna Schirmer are particularly enlightening. She discusses Ney's style of playing, and how it differs from other pianists of the time, e.g. Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Backhaus, Wilhelm Kempff, Annie Fischer and Myra Hess. Roswitha Klaiber, a graphologist, examines Ney's handwriting in an attempt to gain some insights into her character. There's no doubt that Ney was an eccentric, using crystal pendulums to maintain a line of communication between herself and Beethoven, and performing in religious garb as an act of absolution.

As a bonus we are treated to a filmed performance of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, in A flat, Op. 26 made by Alfred Braun. This 1965 film is here released for the first time. Film footage of the pianist is rare, and previously the only visual document of a complete work was a 1964 filmed performance of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. Ney appears relaxed in the A flat Sonata, and her performance is one of elegance and poise. Her sparing use of pedal and cantabile style serve the sonata well.

I'm amazed by the sound quality of the three Mozart chamber works, here making a first appearance on CD. They were captured in 1961 during the Tutzing Music Festival. They come courtesy of her chauffeur and confidante Frithjof von Bodungen, who accompanied her during the last ten years of her life. He taped her concerts to enable her to evaluate her performances. He used two mono microphones and a UHER Stereo_Record 111 tape recorder. The machine must have been state of the art at the time, as it was the first stereo recorder the Munich based factory made. My only criticism is that the piano sounds a tad recessed because of the microphone placement. There's a tangible rapport between the players and their rendition is stylish, warm and raptly intense. They inject plenty of personality into their playing and savour the generous lyricism of the music.

The recordings from the limousine are a fascinating curiosity. Frithjof von Bodungen set up a microphone on the rear car mirror to record her conversations, with her agreement, of course. As they travelled around, she expounds on a variety of subjects. Of particular interest are her thoughts on her interpretations. The tapes have been carefully edited, interspersed with commentary from von Bodungen and recordings of piano music. For non-German speakers, like myself, the book provides a transcript in English and French.

I'm greatly impressed by the presentation of the whole package. The contents (2 CDs, DVD and book) are housed in a sturdy card box. The deluxe, hardback 172 page book is printed on fine quality paper. The annotations are in English, French and German. What attracts me most of all is the copious cache of superbly reproduced black and white photographs. The book also includes background to the documentary film 'Mondscheinsonate: Die Volkspianistin Elly Ney' and a multi-language transcript of the radio feature ‘Elly Ney and her Chauffeur’ – recordings from the limousine, with Frithjof von Bodungen. There's also a bullet-point type biography of the pianist's life.

The set will appeal especially to aficionados of great Beethoven performance. It helps fill a major lacuna in the pianist’s somewhat slender discographical legacy. Many of her recordings have sadly fallen victim to the deletion axe, but I would recommend the two Biddulph CDs 'Elly Ney plays Beethoven' (LHW 033 - review) and Mozart and Beethoven Piano Concertos (BID82045). Best of all, however, is a 12 CD set, a 'Complete Edition of all her late recordings' on the Colosseum Classics label (review). It’s now difficult to obtain and commands very high prices, I'm glad I bought it when it first came out in 2003.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Tully Potter




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