The strongest early musical influence on Elly Ney came from her grandmother, who loved the music of Beethoven. When the child was five her father retired from the army and took a position on the town council in Bonn, and at the age of ten Ney was taken to play for Dr Franz Wüllner, principal of the Cologne Conservatory. He placed her under the tuition of Isidor Seiss, himself a pupil of Friedrich Wieck, father of Clara Schumann. After nine years of study with Seiss, Ney won the Mendelssohn Prize in Berlin and decided she wanted to study with Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna, her motivation for this move being the fact that Leschetizky had studied with Czerny, who in turn had studied with Beethoven. Ney’s final teacher was Emil von Sauer, one of Liszt’s greatest pupils.
Ney began her successful performing career in 1904, making her Viennese debut a year later. She also took over Seiss’s class at the Cologne Conservatory, but after three years abandoned it in favour of performance. Arthur Nikisch and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra were frequent concert partners, and she also performed chamber music with her trio comprising cellist Fritz Reitz and violinist Willem van Hoogstraten whom she married in 1911. In 1921 Ney and her husband travelled to the United States, where, until the outbreak of World War II, Ney enjoyed great success. In 1927 Ney was awarded honorary freedom of the city of Bonn, Beethoven’s birthplace, and in the 1930s she formed a new piano trio with cellist Ludwig Hoelscher and violinist Wilhelm Stross, later replaced by Max Strub. During World War II Ney taught at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, but because she stayed within the Third Reich and did not renounce Hitler and his ideals, she came to be seen, like Furtwängler, as a Nazi sympathiser.
Ney’s mature style was eminently suited to the music of Beethoven. Nobility, grandeur, and her complete immersion in his works resulted in performances of great profundity; but the young Ney had a virtuoso repertoire, and in the 1920s she recorded Liszt, Chopin, Schubert, Debussy, Gottschalk and MacDowell for Brunswick. However, it is her recordings from the 1930s of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 83, Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15, Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy D. 760, Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 450 and most of all the works of Beethoven that are important. Ney’s best recording is of Beethoven Piano Sonata Op. 111, recorded in May 1936. In the Arietta Ney plumbs the depths of Beethoven’s musical psyche in a performance of utter concentration that is one of the finest readings of this work on disc. She brings the same attributes to her reading of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 83 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Max Fiedler. Most of these recordings plus Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 450 and Richard Strauss’s Burleske conducted by her husband have been reissued on compact disc.
Later in her career Ney recorded for the German label Colosseum. Between 1960 and 1968 she recorded a large amount of her repertoire which was recently reissued on twelve compact discs. Seven of the discs are devoted to Beethoven, including the last three concertos with Hoogstraten, and some sonatas and shorter pieces. One disc contains recordings made on Beethoven’s own piano, an instrument that became too fragile to be used thereafter, but these recordings are only of historical interest. The sound quality varies, and a recording from 1964 of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy has a piano with an unpleasant tone. Other major works include Schumann’s Études Symphoniques Op. 13, three Mozart sonatas and a robust Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 5 by Brahms, plus a few previously unreleased items. Good as it is to hear Ney in this varying repertoire, she was already in her late seventies when she began this series of recordings and eighty-six by its end. The 1968 recording of Beethoven’s last piano sonata Op. 111 may have a lifetime of experience behind it, but it is in Ney’s recordings from the 1930s that she really makes her mark.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).