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Elly Ney - Brahms & Schubert

Elly Ney (piano)
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Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: February 2024
Total duration: 75 minutes 35 seconds
Over the last few decades much work has been done by individual discographers in discovering information about dates and locations of many recordings made in the first half of the twentieth century. The internet has been vital in distributing this valuable information, but there are still instances where some details have been lost for ever. This, in part, is due to acquisition or dissolving of companies, the two World Wars, and fire, as at the English Columbia plant at Wandsworth in May 1918 where 200 firemen and 30 fire engines were required to deal with the blaze.

This recording of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2 is a case in point. Previous releases have given 1939 as the date of recording, based on circumstantial evidence, not least the fact that the billed conductor, Max Fiedler, died in 1939: precise recording session information was destroyed during the Second World War. However, it is evident from the matrix numbers of the twelve sides that there are two sequences, indicating that the concerto was originally recorded on matrices 1137 to 1148 but that sides 1, 2, 4, 11 and 12 had to be remade on matrices 1470 to 1474. These must have been recorded at a significantly later date and, as can be seen, at that session they were recorded out of sequence, with the first two sides being followed by the last two, ending with the fourth side.

New information has been discovered by discographer Michael Gray in the archive diaries of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra where some notes of recording sessions are given. Unfortunately, the information is scant and inconclusive due to illegibility. Against 29 April 1940 there appears to be written an abbreviation for ‘Deutsche Grammophon’ and ‘Ney’ while for 30 April the name ‘Melichar’ is definitely seen. It is a fact that the very next matrix, 1475, is a recording made by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Alois Melichar—the Overture to Der Waffenschmied by Albert Lortzing. We know that the conductor on the remade sides cannot be Max Fiedler: he had died in Stockholm on 1 December 1939 while on a farewell tour. Thus, the combination of the matrix number sequence and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra diaries points toward Melichar as being the conductor of the remade sides. This very premise was proposed in the CD release of this product, but since that was announced we have heard from a researcher in Germany that there is a letter in Elly Ney’s correspondence preserved in Bonn giving the information that the uncredited conductor was in fact her former husband Willem van Hoogstraten. Whoever it was and given that five of the twelve sides (nearly half of the work) were re-recorded, one may wonder why they and the BPO did not just record the complete work again. But having Fiedler’s name on the labels would be especially attractive to purchasers due to him having conducted works of Brahms in the presence of the composer and being regarded as a specialist in this repertoire. It is also likely wartime economies would have precluded the luxury of doing the whole work over again and in any case, there are no deficiencies in the published Fiedler sides.

The recordings were made at 32 Alte Jakobstraße in Berlin. Originally a theatre built in 1865 as the Orpheum Ball and Dance Hall, it was the Berlin Central Theatre from 1880 until 1933. Deutsche Grammophon used it as a recording venue from 1938 and it was destroyed by bombing in 1945 with the remains being blown up in 1952.

Elly Ney
From the age of ten, Elly Ney studied for nine years with Isidor Seiss (1840-1905) at the Cologne Conservatory, winning the Mendelssohn Prize and thereafter receiving further tuition from Theodor Leschetizky and Emil von Sauer.

Ney had spent the 1920s in the United States having great success; indeed, when she arrived in 1921, she commenced the first of three Carnegie Hall recitals with Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. After her last appearance in the United States in 1929, she gave her last Prom in August 1930, playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 with Henry Wood before returning to Germany where she remained for the rest of her life, due to her political convictions and choices made during the Second World War.

Ney believed in Germany, German music, and the patriotic stance of the ruling party. Unfortunately, the time she returned home from the United States and England was during the rise of Naziism and she joined the Nazi Party in 1937. That same year Hitler made her a professor and put her in charge of the People’s Beethoven Festival. Her concerts were organised by an office of the German Labour Front (DAF) established especially for her. During the War she performed in occupied territories and military hospitals for soldiers on the front. Because she stayed within the Third Reich and did not renounce Hitler and his ideals, she was seen, like Furtwängler, as a Nazi sympathiser. She promoted German music by giving concerts in schools, hospitals and factories and was an honorary counsellor of the League of German Girls.

From 1939 to 1945 Ney taught at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, where she gave piano classes and annual summer courses. From 1930 onwards, Beethoven featured prominently in her programmes, and she became one of the great Beethoven interpreters of the twentieth century.

Ney also had a strong affinity with the music of Brahms. When she had first appeared in London in 1911 for the Classical Concert Society she gave a Brahms group at the Wigmore Hall, while in January 1912 she performed the Piano Concerto No 1 under Henry Wood at a Queen’s Hall Prom. Two years later she performed the same work at a concert where the English premiere of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was given in the first half. Such was the audience response that Ney gave an encore of Brahms’s Ballade in G minor from Op 118. Further Proms in 1913 included performances of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto and Brahms’s Second Concerto with Wood.

Another Brahms concert in London in 1927 with the Mangeot Quartet included a solo performance of the F minor Piano Sonata. A critic perfectly summed up her qualities at this high point of her career:

Her playing has great breadth, yet misses no detail, so that the composer’s fullest meaning seems to be immediately perceived and conveyed to the audience without the intrusion of the player’s personality. It takes a big musical personality to identify itself so completely with a composer. Miss Ney’s art is interpretation at its highest …
(Times, 1 July 1927)

For all the difficulties inherent in recording Brahms’s Second Concerto, Ney delivers a performance of great authority. This muscular work is demanding in terms of both physical stamina and keyboard technique and Ney was the first woman to record it. Even the young Eugen d’Albert, who played both concertos in one concert under the baton of the composer, complained in a letter to his father that ‘… it is very difficult and when the difficulty is conquered there is no effect whatever as it will always sound like a symphony with piano accompaniment, so little prominence is given to the solo part’. Previously, there had been two fine commercial recordings, both made in England—by Arthur Rubinstein in 1929 with Albert Coates and by Artur Schnabel in 1935 with Adrian Boult.

The recording of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy made at the height of the War in May 1942 was first issued on the Siemens label, not on the Polydor label as might have been expected. This is not the place for a detailed history of the complexities of the Deutsche Grammophon company, but a potted history may suffice …

The Deutsche Grammophon company – a discographical digression
Inventor of the flat disc Emile Berliner and his brother Joseph formed Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft in 1898. To market the gramophone in Europe and the British Empire, the British Gramophone Company, already formed in 1897 to exploit Emile’s invention, bought out shares of DGG in 1900 and became the majority shareholder. To reflect this the name changed to Deutsche Grammophon Aktiengesellschaft and remained so until the outbreak of the First World War.
In 1917 DGA, being seen by the German Government as an enemy asset, was confiscated and sold it to the highest bidder. The purchaser was Polyphon Musikwerke A.G. in Leipzig-Wahren, who then made DGA a subsidiary of the business, retaining the DGA name inside Germany and Austria but marketing their discs as Polydor beyond these territories. Polyphon Musikwerke A.G. was originally a Swiss musicbox maker which had, by 1904, diversified into producing gramophones and its own recordings marketed under the Polyphon Record label. Polyphon Musikwerke A.G. renamed itself Polyphon-Werke A.G. to reflect this purchase but retained the two record labels as two distinct businesses. It was also useful being a business that was technically Swiss when trading abroad; for example, French Polydor was not owned by the German DGA but by the Swiss holding company. In 1933 the Nazi’s removed all Jewish members from the German board of the company but could not confiscate the holding company Polydor-Holding-Gesellschaft which was then based in Basel.
Although DGA had no influence over the other foreign subsidiaries it still had an agreement dating from 1925 with the US Brunswick-Balke-Callender Company and therefore could market its recordings in the US and exchange matrices, an agreement that lasted until 1935. A similar agreement was concluded with the Decca Record Company Ltd in London which had created the Decca Polydor series.
By 1935 DGA was foundering in Germany and had to sell off the Polyphon-Werke A.G. where their gramophones were made. Things got worse by 1937 when the company became bankrupt.
After the bankruptcy Deutsche Bank became the major creditor, owning both the shares and share capital. Deutsche Bank then sold these shares to the Telefunken Gesellschaft für drahtlose Telegraphie m.b.H. Interestingly Telefunken, who were makers of radios, already had its own record label (launched in 1932) and decided to reestablish DGA under the name Deutsche Grammophon A.G. and effectively then ran them as two distinct record companies.
Record production slowed when the Second World War began and in 1941 Siemens & Halske, one of the two parent companies of Telefunken, acquired all the shares in DGAG and at the same time transferred all of its shares in Telefunken to the other parent, AEG, to become outright owners of the company. From 1942 the label was renamed Siemens Polydor Sonderklasse for popular music and Siemens Spezial Meisterklasse for classical music, the Polydor name only being found on labels of popular material.
The pressing plants and offices of the company had been badly damaged by bombing. After the War Siemens & Halske was in the Russian zone so the DGAG part of the business came under the control of the Ernst von Siemens-Gesellschaft in Munich, in the US sector. It soon after became an independent company again and the name changed to Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, the original name the Berliner brothers used when they founded the business in 1898.

Back to Ney and the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy. Again, the pianist gives an authoritative reading of the work, one which is notable for its clarity, being neither heavy nor bombastic (as unfortunately this work can sound in the hands of lesser pianists). Ney is also keen to differentiate between the different note markings—accents, staccato and marcato—which Schubert employed, something particularly evident in the E flat lyrical section of the first movement. In the last movement Ney adds bass octaves to the opening statement and plays the right-hand dominant chords in the closing bars an octave higher than written.

By way of an encore, we are treated to Ney’s own selection of Schubert Dances that was the filler on the sixth side of the three-disc 78-rpm set. For some reason, certain post-War issues, now on the Deutsche Grammophon label, dropped these charming dances and have a blank sixth side, but the wartime Siemens copy from the Malcolm Binns collection used for this re-issue has this delightful encore as a bonus.
with thanks to Jolyon Hudson and Michael Gray

Jonathan Summers © 2024

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