Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44 (1842) [28:01]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 15 in B flat major, K450 (1784) [26:54]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
14 German Dances, D783 (1823-24) [7:17]
Elly Ney (piano)
Hoffman String Quartet
Chamber Orchestra of the German Opera House, Berlin/Ernst Schrader
rec. March 1944, Breslau, Seneraum (Schumann); October 1944 (Mozart) and December 1944 (Schubert) Funkhaus Masurenalee, Studio 1, Berlin
MELOCLASSIC MC1029 [67:56]

Recordings devoted to Elly Ney continue to appear from time to time, though they are largely devoted to her commercial legacy. This one mines studio recordings made in Berlin and Breslau in 1944 and captures her in the role as concerto soloist, chamber player and solo recitalist, a nice distribution of talents.

I’ve reviewed her late Colosseum recordings, where interested parties can delve further into some aspects of her controversial life. As for musical matters, this disc finds her essaying a favourite concerto and one that she had earlier recorded in 1935 with her first husband, the Dutch conductor Willem van Hoogstraaten. It can be found in transfers on several labels, not least Dutton, Document, Biddulph and – not a great transfer – Hänssler. The radio sound is typically fine and the performance is more relaxed and more expansive than her studio recording. It’s noticeable that in the slow movement Ernst Schrader directs very expressively, not moving on with things as Hoogstraaten did a decade earlier. Ney’s phrase endings are full of grace and if one considers them anachronistic, then compensation lies in the warm exchanges between her and the winds in the finale. Altogether, this amplifies her virtues as a Mozart pianist – though of course she was predominantly admired as a Beethoven specialist.

She can be heard solo in Berlin at the beginning of December 1944 playing fourteen of the German Dances, D783. In 1961 she was to record, in stereo, the 15 Dances (COL9025.12.2). This is hardly taxing material but it was the kind of thing that Ney, and indeed Myra Hess, enjoyed playing from time to time. The late stereo is technically a bit cleaner than this studio rendering, but Ney never much cared for the cult of perfection and though there is a touch of muddled phrasing now and then, there is arguably a more personable and characterful performance to be heard in 1944.

The Schumann Piano Quintet reminds us that Ney made a small series of significant 78rpm sets of chamber music with her ensemble in the 1930s. The Quartet in E flat, Op.47 was recorded by her group in 1936; Florizel von Reuter, Walter Trampler and Ludwig Hoelscher so it’s particularly interesting to come across Schumann’s E flat major Piano Quintet, Op.44 (Breslau, 14 March 1944). Here her colleagues are the Hoffman String Quartet; Norbert Hoffmann, Wilhelm Martens, Fritz Laur and Hans Adomeit. All four had reasonable careers. I know that Martens went on to the staff of the Deutsche Hochschule für Musik in East Berlin and made some recordings for Eterna. The performance, though, is somewhat erratically paced. The march is decidedly funereal, especially at the chosen tempo, and the group struggles to re-establish the tempo primo. The stormy middle section serves only to destabilise the music’s direction even more. You get a wholly different experience listening to the Busch Quartet with Rudolf Serkin a couple of years earlier in New York, as indeed you do with the Budapest with Balsam at the Library of Congress in 1953. There is some whir, presumably due to the recording machine tape, but the tone is very shrill. Ney didn’t seem to mind violinists who were quite coarse-toned, as Reuter was prone to be – Max Strub was a lot better – as long as the results were musically truthful, but the sound of the fiddles here in this treble-oriented recording is particularly brittle. The Hoffmann Quartet was certainly not in the front rank of German groups on disc.

Nevertheless it’s always valuable to hear Ney, not least in works that escaped commercial recording. The notes set the scene well, and don’t gloss over the pianist’s aberrant conduct during the Hitler years.

Jonathan Woolf