A triptych of emotional devastation and fiercely brutal physicality, Béla Bartók’s Studies, Op. 18 occupy a dark, troubled corner within the genre of the piano etude. Written in the spring of 1918, these three etudes served as a demonstration of Bartók compositional and pianistic progressivism. Due in part to a lack of immediate public approval, as well as the extraordinary effort required to program—and sometimes, even listen to—the set, Bartók left these studies behind after their initial premier in 1919. Fifteen years later in 1934, Bartók confessed to a concert manager that “I cannot play the three etudes, I haven’t played them—ever or anywhere—since 1918.”
Unapologetically, the Allegro molto slithers out of the gate in a flight of broken ninths and tenths—requiring maximal hand extension at maximal speed for an extended period of time. While much of the literal figuration is similar throughout the etude, it possesses a respectable range of sound that flickers, groans, waves, and—perhaps most of all—bites. The Andante sostenuto unwraps itself gradually, revealing the figure of an unexpectedly lyrical elegy. As if responding to the trauma of the first etude, the second study asks desperate questions—without pause for an answer. This movement is defined by swirling, multi-chordal arpeggiation that spans three octaves, accompanying an espressivo, aching melody that passes between the hands. Perhaps the apex of the entire opus, this etude climaxes with a cadenza of sorts, where the hands mirror and push against one another, not unlike the forceful dance of two magnets of similar poles. Finally, the Rubato-Tempo giusto, capriccioso is the most angular and terrifying of the three etudes. Despite its brilliant, capricious nature, in many ways the etude is a sort of night-terror—fluttering, dissonant jump-scares flicker by with such velocity that the listener is denied any luxury of manageable digestion. At the center of this etude, a folk-like melody seems to appear from a great distance—as it comes closer to the foreground, one may notice that it suddenly resembles the type of music commonly associated with Bartók. With greater clarity, however, something sinister begins to reveal itself. The studies close with a final, twisted confrontation, returning to a similar line of inquiry posited numerous times throughout the set—but alas, one is left to find answers on their own.
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