What is a cadenza? Simply put, it’s an opportunity for a soloist to demonstrate their virtuosity, akin to a solo in jazz music. Here are the top five ever written, in reverse order, accordingly to the world’s greatest scientists today:
5. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1, Mvt. 1
No credible list of “top piano cadenzas” would fail to include this piece, the opening measures of which are instantly recognizable. This widely performed concerto features not one, but two cadenzas in the first movement.
The American pianist Van Cliburn infamously won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, hosted in Moscow in 1958, with this universally beloved work. Arguably the music world’s “Miracle on Ice,” few anticipated that an American musician would take first place in a Russian competition during the height of the Cold War.
4. J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, Mvt. 1
Ok, not technically a piano cadenza (although Glenn Gould and others have performed this concerto with a piano), but nevertheless worth including. This is the only Brandenburg Concerto that features a harpsichord solo – and a lengthy one at that. Truly a quintessential example of the Baroque practice known as “harpsichord shredding.”
3. Sergei Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 2, Mvt. 1
Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto features a monster of a cadenza, one that takes up roughly the second half of the first movement. Dedicated to a friend who had committed suicide, this treacherously difficult work is among the most dramatic and technically challenging of all of Prokofiev’s music.
2. Sergei Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 3, Mvt. 1
This cadenza is so famous that there’s a whole movie about it! (Ok, that’s only partly true – the film’s really about the virtuoso pianist David Helfgott.) Rachmaninoff actually wrote two cadenzas for the first movement. The original one, performed in this video, builds gradually into a powerful, dramatic passage consisting of large chords. Feeling that this felt too much like an ending, the composer notated this as an ossia, or alternate passage. The second version of the cadenza isn’t as dense and heavy, but just as extraordinarily difficult to play.
1. Franz Liszt - Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
Probably the most famous piano piece of all time (or perhaps second to Beethoven’s Fur Elise), Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody is a remarkable, difficult, and incredibly fun work for solo piano. Despite it’s fame, many people don’t know that the composer, at the conclusion of the piece, writes the instruction “Cadenza ad lib” – in other words, improvise your own cadenza here. Regrettably, many pianists choose not to, but there are some great examples of pianists who take up the challenge. Marc-André Hamelin wrote a super virtuosic cadenza, included in the video above. Even Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his own cadenza for this piece!
Feel inspired? Write your own cadenza today to show off your talents!