Elly Ney (1882-1968) emerged as a leading exponent of the Leschetizky school of pianism and a became a “high priestess” of Beethoven in her own lifetime. Recording prolifically right to the end of a chequered career–she was indelibly associated with National Socialism as Hitler’s favorite musical artist–Ney made a series of recordings for the Colisseum label that reveal a permanent beauty of tone applied over a smear of faulty fingerings. But in 1906, shortly after her graduation from classes with Emil von Sauer–the Brahms F Minor Sonata provided her exam piece–Ney gained access to the Welte Mignon studio, along with fellow musicians Carl Freidberg and Artur Nikisch. These are her earliest inscriptions, and they pay tribute to a refined and flexible approach to music, where the independence of the hands and free rubato marked the accepted style of performance.
Ney opens with the two latter movements of the A-flat Major Sonata of Beethoven, Op. 110, taken rather furioso, with Ney’s leaping over the sforzati and not respecting pauses much. She applies a firm hand to the fugue, making it sing even while stumbling over some knotty passages. The G Major Chaconne of Handel–long a favorite of contemporary Edwin Fischer–had been assigned to her by teacher Isidor Seiss, Ney executes brilliantly, a series of distinct pearls. Ney’s rubato in the scho effects of the Brahms slow movement may seem excessive to our tastes, but they were the common romantic license of her day. The Romance from Op. 118 moves as vertically as it does horizontally, the series of trills over a pedal achieving a soft, carillon effect. The Liszt emerges as stylistically idiomatic as a liquid salon piece that ends with the same flourish as a Brahms Hungarian Dance. Recall that Ney had been hailed as “the female Paderewski.” The Rubinstein Gavotte, another glittery, salon exercise in tricky metrics and a light hand, passes by unostentatiously. Bernhard Koehler remains an unknown entity: his Caprice hums through several octaves in echo, pleasantly forgettable. Hugo Kaun enjoyed more popularity as a turn-of-the-century salon figure, and his tritely sentimental Serenade sounds like third-rate Lehar. The Naila Waltz transcription–later a staple of Geza Anda–enjoys a plethora of color details, the syncopations jaunty and the main melodic tissue suddenly thrust forth among a panoply of chirps and mews. Reproduced on the modern Steinway D, Ney’s sound comes across as that of natural virtuoso, a lyric, even occasionally flamboyant personality, the Germans’ answer to Teresa Carreno.
— Gary Lemco