Not every piano concerto has a significant cadenza, but we tend to remember the ones that do. They are spotlights for the performer to show their skills without any orchestral accompaniment in the way, and often composers save both their most challenging material and some important thematic development for these sections. In the Classical period these would usually be improvised, especially by composer-performers like Beethoven, and the audience would always know when they were about to happen. Somewhere near the end of the first movement of a concerto, the orchestra would start to state a chunk of the prime melody, then swell into a big, expectant I-6/4 cadence. The cadenza would proceed, and ease back neatly into the coda.
As classical music continued to develop, composers began to play with conventions and start changing the placement of cadenzas or changing the surrounding context. In the twentieth century especially, you get a lot of fake-out cadenzas soon hushed by the orchestra, or cadenzas that serve as entire short movements to fill a structural role. No matter the case, a good cadenza has the effect of stopping time, and showing the performer’s heroism as they achieve orchestral effects on their instrument.
Below I’ve listed my favorites (with videos cued to right before the cadenzas). At some point I may go down the rabbit hole and study all the cadenzas for famous Classical concertos added by other composers or performers (Fazil Say, Glenn Gould, Artur Schnabel, etc). It’s a neat tradition that I’m glad hasn’t died yet.
5. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1st movement)
Beethoven brought the right amount of fire to this C minor work. The cadenza is equal parts stormy and delicate, and I’d give anything to have heard Beethoven perform it himself. From an opening section that’s mostly arpeggio-driven, he moves into a little Mozartian version of one of the themes before breaking off into a frantic series of gestures that show the next level of piano writing. I like that statement of confidence, knowing he’s moving the genre forward.
Sheet Music: Henle | Schirmer
4. Shostakovich: Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra, Op. 35 (4th movement)
This concerto is quite simply one of the funniest pieces of music I know. Though it’s definitely a piano concerto, a solo trumpet continuously butts in like a tone-deaf guest. The fourth movement is essentially a struggle between the piano trying to stay dominant and the trumpet interrupting with Spanish-tinged gestures and blaring reveilles. When the piano finally gets a cadenza moment, it starts with a familiar Classical trill on a dominant chord, as if to say “This is the cadenza now! Shut up!” Then the piano scampers all over the place in some scalar hijinks. The trumpet interrupts, leading to a brief orchestra interlude. The piano makes one more bid for the spotlight with a bit of a stride-piano construction with leaping left-hand accompaniment. Finally, at a loss, the piano settles on repeated tonic chords to complement the trumpet’s repeated-note blasts.
Sheet Music: Sikorski
3. Ravel: Concerto for the Left Hand
In a left-hand concerto, there’s built-in suspense for how the composer will handle the cadenza. In this case, Ravel creates an oasis in the middle of an anxiety-laden piece. The left hand emerges from the depths of the keyboard, and then a waterfall of notes cascades down. It’s relaxing to hear and surely very difficult to play. The left hand seems maxed out by the texture, and then somehow the main theme starts to appear in the midst of the waterfall. It’s a great heroic moment and a skillful bit of piano writing.
Sheet Music: Durand
2. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1st movement ossia cadenza)
Rachmaninoff’s original cadenza was shorter, but he wrote out this more intense, involved version as an ossia. Performance practice has favored the bigger cadenza, and audiences love it. The movie Shine has given it even more exposure. It’s a great dramatic statement that ties together the mood of the first movement, and the right pianist can really make the chordal texture at the climax sing. I love how after the bombast, the piano disappears into arpeggios while a flute takes the main tune. It’s a surprisingly gentle touchdown to earth.
Sheet Music: Schirmer
1. Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 (1st movement)
The first time I heard this piece and arrived at the cadenza, I stopped what I was doing and listened. I thought, “This seems a bit early in the movement to have the cadenza,” and proceeded to realize that I was listening to perhaps the most massive cadenza in the repertoire. It’s absolutely earth-shattering, leaving nothing but dust in its wake. Though it does take up an entire half of the first movement, it serves to further develop themes and build to the biggest climax possible. The pianist has to deal with one technical landmine after another, with enormous chords, lots of tricky hand-crosses, and sustained arpeggios. When an ominous brass choir announces the end of the cadenza, I think of the piano as an ambitious character who has just completed a transformation into a supervillain.
Sheet Music: Boosey & Hawkes