Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91)
Piano Quartet in G minor, K478
Piano Quartet in E flat, K493
Piano Trio in G major, K564
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)
ARTHAUS MUSIK 109336 [DVD: 76 mins & 2 CDs: 125 mins]
Fasten your seatbelts – this could be a long review. But to start with, I thought it would be best to consider Elly Ney doing what she did best, playing the piano. At the 1961 Tutzing Festival her chauffeur and factotum Frithjof von Bodungen recorded the performances with, we are told, two mono microphones feeding into a UHER Stereo-Record III tape recorder. The results are more than adequate. The G minor Piano Quartet, with Ney’s longtime colleagues Wilhelm Stross and Ludwig Hoelscher, plus Ingo Sinnhofer of the Stross Quartet on viola, shows a nice feeling for tempo in all three movements and the balance among the instruments is good: it is especially welcome to have the cello so firmly defined. The exposition is repeated in (i). After a slight uncertainty at the start, the E flat Quartet with another quartet leader, Heinz Endres, and his quartet colleague Fritz Ruf goes well: again the tempi are natural. This recording from three days later favours the strings a little and there is more distortion, but the sound is very acceptable. The lovely little G major Trio from the same concert has a good tempo in (i), with just a hint of instability at one point; the theme is pleasingly stated in (ii) and the variations are interestingly played; and the players adopt an excellent tempo for (iii), which is quite gemütlich. The only element lacking in all three performances is any suggestion of wit or humour – this is very serious, Germanic Mozart. Some tiny imperfections in Ney’s passagework, even a few notes missed in the Allegretto of the E flat Quartet, should not detract from any listener’s enjoyment. The odd cough from the audience does not seem to affect the musicians. I am not sure how often I shall return to these performances, with myriad other versions in my collection, but as Ney recorded very little Mozart in the studio, these supplements will be welcomed by her admirers.
The main event in this package is a documentary film in which Axel Fuhrmann confronts the issue of Ney’s Nazism head on. Before discussing his findings, it may help readers of a later generation if I set the scene a little. Born in Düsseldorf on 27 September 1882, Ney was among the most brilliant graduates of the Cologne Conservatory in the era when it was headed by Franz Wüllner – from whom she imbibed the secrets of Beethoven interpretation conveyed to him by his own teacher Anton Schindler. Her piano tutors at Cologne were Isidor Weiss (a pupil of Clara Schumann’s father Friedrich Wieck) and Karl Boettcher (a friend of Mahler, Nikisch and Weingartner); she won the 1900 Mendelssohn Prize, finished her training in Vienna with the great pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky and the Liszt pupil Emil von Sauer, won the Ibach Prize and made her Berlin and Vienna débuts in 1905. At first she taught at her alma mater in Cologne, but after three years she began her real career as a concert pianist and she was soon famous above all for her Beethoven interpretations. In 1911 she married the Dutch violinist and conductor Willem van Hoogstraten; they formed a sonata duo and a trio (with the Swiss cellist Fritz Reitz) and often appeared together in concertos, even after their divorce in 1927 – Ney was then married for a time to Paul F. Allais of Chicago. She was also friendly with the composer Max Reger; and in 1917 she made a sonata tour of Switzerland with Adolf Busch. In 1927 she received the honorary freedom of Beethoven’s birthplace Bonn. In 1929 the Elly Ney Trio was formed, with Ludwig Hoelscher as the cellist – the violinist was successively Wilhelm Stross, Florizel von Reuter and Max Strub. Her partnership with Hoelscher lasted into the stereo LP era and they recorded all the Beethoven Cello Sonatas. Ney was the first to record Strauss’s Burleske and among her many records of chamber music were superb accounts of Schumann’s Piano Quartet (with Reuter, Walter Trampler and Hoelscher) and Schubert’s Trout Quintet (with Strub, Trampler, Hoelscher and Hermann Schubert). She was already appearing in the United States before the First World War and was a regular visitor from 1921 to 1930. In the latter year she also played Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Concerto at a Promenade Concert in Queen’s Hall, London.
In an essay about her pre-war Beethoven recordings, I wrote: ‘With her shock of dark hair which eventually turned white, the tall, stately Ney was a striking figure who created a memorable impression on the concert platform – not least by reading the Heiligenstadt Testament at her Beethoven recitals. “Playing the Kreutzer Sonata with her was an experience I have never forgotten,” wrote Florizel von Reuter, “and her Sonata Appassionata was a crowning achievement.” Her mystical approach to music – similar to that of Furtwängler in its confusion of German nationalism with the destiny of German art – led her to espouse National Socialism with fervour during the Third Reich. She became known as ‘the Führer’s pianist’ and was made an honorary member of the Bund deutscher Mädel. Her reward was to have the title Professor conferred on her by Hitler himself in 1937. … Elly Ney’s art was founded on a powerful technique, a tone of luminous depth and a spontaneity which could be the despair of her musical collaborators. “She was not a stereotyped player,” wrote Reuter. “At rehearsals she would labour frantically to perfect a certain interpretation, then would say: ‘Now, let’s start all over again and do it quite differently.’ This was sometimes perplexing for the other members of the Trio. Not that she neglected traditions. I do not believe any other artist was more careful of detail. She was, in fact, the born chamber music player, never dominating or trying to outshine her colleagues.” Her eccentricities were the stuff of legend. At one time she held that the night – and if possible, the early dawn – was the best period of the day for making music and her patient colleagues were expected to turn their lives upside down to accommodate her schedule. She repaid them with a solicitude for their health and general welfare which led most of her protégés to address her as “Mami”. Her diet fads were notorious – one year it might be green apples, another year garlic – and her associates had to fall in with her latest discovery.’
At the time of her sonata tour with Adolf Busch, Ney was in a particularly nervous state. Only recently she had feared that she was losing the use of her hands, through the early onset of rheumatism; and although the vegetarian regime prescribed by the famous Dr Max Bircher-Benner had restored her full facility, this crisis had left its mark on her. The two Rhinelanders did not really get on, although Busch admired her playing and gave one further recital with her. They finally parted company over her politics. Her reasons for backing Hitler were typically eccentric, as her daughter Eleonore van Hoogstraten admitted to me: ‘She was very silly politically. She didn’t understand politics. Hitler didn’t really like her but she wanted him to like her more, because he was a vegetarian like she was. She kept saying: “We’re going to win the war.” After the war she was not so keen on Hitler.’ During the Third Reich she felt licensed to give free rein to the anti-Semitism which had always been part of her personality, although she had previously consorted with Jewish musicians with apparent equanimity.
Fuhrmann’s documentary begins with her harsh upbringing – her father was a sergeant, which started a lifelong fascination with soldiers. After the family moved to Bonn and two of her siblings died, the father decided to harden up the remaining children: he would wake them up at 5.00 a.m. to go swimming or hiking. Eventually she fled home to study in Vienna. The pianist Ragna Schirmer makes an interesting comparison between the openings of Schnabel’s ‘Emperor’ with Sargent and Ney’s 1944 recording with Böhm, pointing out how much more espressivo she uses, making her difficult to accompany. Another contributor, the graphologist Roswitha Klaiber, makes some fascinating observations about Ney’s handwriting. We hear part of a 1906 piano roll (confusingly the English subtitles translate ‘Tonrolle’ as ‘cylinder’), showing the impulsive Ney style already fully formed. During World War I, owing to her Dutch name, Ney was several times accused of being a spy, interrogated and even imprisoned. When she began a successful American career in 1921-22, her daughter was farmed out to a children’s home. At the end of the 1920s, Ney came under the influence of the anti-Semite Johannes Müller and lived at Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps, a gathering place for his followers. By then she had cast off her American husband and had gone back to Van Hoogstraten, though how much they lived as husband and wife has never been explicitly stated – he always seemed to be in her shadow. ‘Isn’t the classication of mankind into races and peoples an expression of life itself? A gift from God?’ she wrote to him in the early 1930s. ‘Don’t you see that because of this, the Hitler regime takes defensive action against that which is alien to the German people in order to liberate the people’s own forces? Doesn’t that make Adolf Hitler a messenger of life, because he is determined to accomplish the order which life itself demands?’
During the war Ney plunged enthusiastically into playing for the troops, performing in most of the Occupied countries. She confused Beethoven’s music with the idea of fighting and achieving victory, a key component of the way his works were used as propaganda by the Nazis. Who can forget the sight of Furtwängler conducting the Ninth Symphony before an array of Nazi swastika banners? On the night of the massive raid on Coventry, the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata was played on German Radio and the operation was given the codename Mondscheinsonate. Apparently Ney used a crystal pendulum to decide which tempo to take in a piece of music – especially in Beethoven’s works, where she felt in direct communication with the composer through the crystal – and even made decisions in her daily life based on swings of the pendulum. It is difficult to be totally condemnatory of one who, while clearly being a major artist, was so obviously batty; but it would be easier to forgive her if she had ever publicly confronted her guilt. Andreas Hoelscher, son of her close associate Ludwig Hoelscher, confirms that neither Ney nor his father ever admitted their misdeeds. The furthest Ney went was to speak in abstractions such as ‘imprudent acts’ and ‘eternal guilt’. After the war and the usual laughable denazification proceedings, she settled in Tutzing on the Starnbergersee and tried to make some amends by raising money for the reconstruction of the Beethovenhalle in Bonn, but her donation was refused. Her reputation in Germany see-sawed for the rest of her life: she continued to give concerts and in the 1960s made some recordings, ironically for the Nuremberg label Colosseum! I have some of them and they are deeply impressive: the last two Beethoven Sonatas were taped only months before her death. She still had a public, but after her death in 1968 the whole Nazi business was dragged up again and all Ney memorabilia were removed from Tutzing Town Hall.
A bonus film by Alfred Braun presents Ney playing Beethoven’s A flat Sonata, Op. 26, in 1965 (apparently there is a ‘Moonlight’ Sonata film from the previous year). She takes the Funeral March very slowly, as she always did, but she has the power and conviction to carry it off. A second CD is the strangest artefact in this package, a radio feature by Fuhrmann based on recordings which the chauffeur Frithjof von Bodungen made of his conversations with Ney in her Mercedes as they travelled to and from concerts. The spoken dialogue is interspersed with commentary by Bodungen and excerpts from Ney’s recordings. I wish I could say that she comes up with startling musical insights in her chats with Bodungen, but you would have to be a fanatical Ney acolyte to gain much from listening to her. Occasionally she seems to be trying to justify her behaviour in the Third Reich. I doubt whether I shall want to return to this disc. The DVD and two-disc CD set are housed in a stout box along with a hardback book in English, French and German, with photos, details of all the contents of the discs, several short essays, excerpts from the documentary film and the text of the radio feature. Incidentally the recording details of the Mozart pieces are incorrect on the CD box, although they are correct in the book.
What are we to make of Elly Ney? I suspect that, as usually happens on Facebook and in magazine correspondence columns, many music lovers will line up according to their own political persuasions – I have noticed that those who constantly tell us to ‘keep politics out of music’ tend to be of a conservative bent. For myself, I cannot forget or forgive what certain artists did during the Third Reich, under the banner of superior German culture; but it is an inconvenient fact that a few of them, such as Ney, really did have something of import to convey through their music-making. As Dr Beatrix Borchard of the Hamburg Hochschule points out, there was more to Ney than just a culprit. Perhaps the last word should go to the cultural commentator Dr Barthold Witte: ‘The popularity of Elly Ney, particularly after 1945, was essentially due to the fact that she disencumbered those who felt burdened by guilt. When she gave a performance in religious robes, it was like an act of absolution. I am quite certain that many people felt that way about it. If Elly Ney could play so divinely, then our guilt after 12 years of Hitler’s fascism couldn’t be so drastic after all.