The recordings of Bela Bartok playing the piano reveal that he was an unusually fine pianist*. His incredible delicacy of touch in quiet passages, his ability to move energize a bass line without overpowering the piece, his ability to enlighten a dense harmonic texture by precise balance are the essence of real virtuosity. His recordings, especially the well known Library of Congress recital with Joseph Szigeti show his interpretation of Beethoven and Debussy were more than of just of his time. His recordings of his own compositions are, if the word means anything, definitive.
You can hear in his Three Etudes, op 18, how his compositional genius and his pianist technique combine and become a single entity. While there have been some very fine pianist-composers, Prokofiev, Ravel, Bolcom, I don’t know of any who achieved Bartok’s level in the past century.
These etudes are amazingly difficult, I’ve studied the second one but never performed it. I’ve never heard a live performance of all three and am not certain how often they are performed together, hearing Zoltan Kocsis on this YouTube and being able to follow the score on screen is a humbling experience. Knowing I’m unlikely to ever come close to that level of virtuosity in this life is one of the few things that might make me wish for another incarnation.
posted by Anthony McCarthy
* Here is Bartok playing his Suite, a piece I’m currently studying.