So who can play this Rachmaninov cadenza?

So who can play this Rachmaninov cadenza?


norman lebrecht

April 23, 2021

10 top pianists have a go.

How’s yours?




  • Donald Hansen says:

    Rachmaninoff signed his name with two Fs. His tomb stone is spelled Rachmaninoff. But now it’s mostly seen with the V ending. Who started that and why must it continue to be seen on most recordings, and now on Slippedisc? Nice video though.

  • John borstlap says:


    This 1st mvt of the 3rd concerto is Rchmaninoff’s masterpiece. No other work of his comes close in terms of musical substance, profound expression, grandeur, and structural ingeniosity (the other movements are entirely suiperfluous and not so good, in comparison). The music of this mvt is built-up of cumulative small units, vaulting over a large arc. But strangely enough, the two cadenza’s (the one in the video is the ‘easier’ one) are entirely superfluous – not necessary at all, from a musical point of view. And the raging virtuosi merely want to show-off their prowess which – in the light of the substance of the music – is totally misplaced. Rachmaninoff made a concession to the virtuoso tradition….. and the cadenzas spoil the musical effect.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Excellent point about the cadenzas (cadenze? cadenzae?). That’s why I prefer the subtle Stephen Hough among the performances on offer. He integrates the cadenza into the movement better than the others. Yuja Wang runs a fine second to him, IMHO.

      Of course, mileages will vary; this is merely my own.

    • A Pianist says:

      The theme and variations second movement is absolutely fabulous. And no one ever got bored during the third movement.

    • M McAlpine says:

      Cadenzas entirely superfluous? What a strange comment. Of course you can say that about any concerto. To me the cadenzas fit in entirely with the musical effect, especially the one played here.

    • Bernard Jacobson says:

      I always enjoy reading John Borsrlap’s illuminating comments, which are blessedly free from the self-glorifying snidery that is all too prevalent in these columns, but I have to take issue with his views about the Third Pia Concerto. To my mind, the Symphonic Dances are the most wonderful combination of stylistic distinction, formal ingenuity, and sheer musical sap and charm that Rachmaninoff ever achieved.

      Bernard Jacobson

    • Paul Carlile says:

      I have to take issue of the “masterpiece” statement and also that “no other work comes close…” There are two outright masterpieces in Rach’s piano/orch output: the 2nd concerto and the Paganini Rapsody. The 2nd concerto is more tightly structured with such a continuous flow of rich, generous material that no cut would be possible ANYWHERE! Contrast that with the much-cut 3rd concerto (yes, even the 1st movement has suffered mini-cuts!). The Rapsody is a masterpiece in every way; structure, flow, imagination, innovation, and even making a hit-tune out of Paganini’s devilish A-minor acrobatics!

      This is not to deny the 3rd concerto’s greatness, in some ways “greater” than the two “masterpieces” i mentioned, in that a mystic dimension is added, with the further Everest-like task of the interpreter having to actually master the monster while making enormous interpretive choices and decisions.

      Otherwise, your analysis is excellent. On the cadenza issue, i might agree about the “ossia” (grander) cadenza, which is overblown, but a fine rendition of the “regular” cadenza, (Rach’s own choice), keeps the flow and the expressive style, just enough grandeur without overdoing it.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    All fine pianists indeed. What I shall never, ever forget, however, is how Adele Marcus (pupil of Josef Lhevinne) taught this, and I never heard anyone else do this in the same manner. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t slow, it wasn’t dry or overpedaled. There was this magical mystical pedaling she employed that merged with the feeling, the embroidery and the building of this remarkable cadenza. The sonority and rich sound of the chords was incredible. It is difficult to put into words, but I never heard it like that otherwise.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Any clips by Adele Marcus you would recommend?

      • Jeffrey Biegel says:

        I have them in audio at my website, but there are no videos. Her playing from the audio clips are older and when I met her, she was already 70 and her playing was quite different. Her pedaling, sound and phrasing was over-the-top. But only the students could hear it in the teaching studio.

        • Fliszt says:

          Those Adele Marcus clips on your website are painfully amateurish. They serve to shatter the illusion that she created about herself. You owe it to yourself to listen to her clips more objectively.

    • No Fool says:

      There was certainly nothing magical or mystical about Adele Marcus as a pianist – as evidenced by the fact that no major conductors or orchestras ever engaged her. Her teaching was competent, but no more than that. Her genius (if one could call it that) was in convincing gullible students that she was something she wasn’t.

      • Jeffrey Biegel says:

        Adele suffered from stage fright, and decided not to perform, but rather, assist Josef Lhevinne for seven years and teach. She is not here to defend herself, but only those who knew her and her playing in the studio would understand. Her students knew her well, her manner and style. She never convinced anyone she was more than she was. I suppose Horowitz was gullible then when she played for him after he asked to meet her when he took on Byron Janis for studies. He asked her, ‘how do you get that sound’? She was tempestuous, but she also knew what she was doing. Many who did not get through their studies with her often reflect in words. Her legacy is marked by the number of artists she helped cultivate in their sound and ability to navigate in the industry.

        • Keybored says:

          And what proof do you have that Horowitz ever asked her that? I was backstage at Avery Fisher Hall after a Horowitz recital – when Ms. Marcus approached him, he gave her a blank stare – he had no clue who she was, so she had to introduce herself.

  • RW2013 says:

    An inspiring 18 minutes.
    Can we have a similar compilation with the lesser played ossia cadenza?
    Off to practise now…

      • I was waiting for this … Yefim Bronfman is incredible in this “ossia” cadenza (as he unfailingly is with everything else that he performs). He and Van Cliburn are my favorites here, although Olga Kern is also top-notch.

        The different cadenzas converge at a certain point, perhaps 20-30 bars or thereabouts before the orchestra enters again. About four bars after they converge, right before the big climax, Jorge Bolet used to play the left hand part differently — with the lowest bass notes on the downbeat and not syncopated as in the original. Sounds much better, IMHO … it’s possible that he got Rachmaninoff’s OK on this variant, although I can’t swear by it (Rachmaninoff did attend his Carnegie Hall debut, after all…he could have very well played it for him.)

        I believe that many pianists would occasionally perform both cadenzas at different times, depending on how they felt at the moment, and in how good condition the piano was where they had to perform.

        • A late-in-the-game follow-up on the cadenza variant as played by Jorge Bolet … you can hear this in some of his YouTube clips playing this concerto; here is one from his younger days (the link should take you directly to the spot in the cadenza mentioned):

          Just last night, I decided to listen to Emil Gilels in his 1949 recording of the piece with Kyrill Kondrashin. It is also up on YouTube, and I never knew it, but he plays this exactly the same way:

          So I asked myself: Where did this tradition come from — did Bolet get it from Gilels, or vice-versa? And where did it originate — perhaps with Rachmaninoff himself?

          So I listened to some of Horowitz’s recordings of the piece — sure enough, he also plays it that way. So now we know … since Horowitz played it for Rachmaninoff back in the 1920’s (?) I am quite sure that he must have had Rachmaninoff’s OK on this.

          Am a little surprised that nobody set me straight here until now.

    • M McAlpine says:

      It would appear now that the ossia is played a lot more

  • Geoff says:

    Lugansky was the most musical of the group and Martha was great of course

  • Mock Mahler says:

    Disappointing without Victor Borge, Chico Marx, and Lola.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Fascinating, Norman, thank you. I wish it were possible to include Rachmaninoff himself even without video. For me, Horowitz owns the concerto and the cadenza.

    Lugansky and Hough are exxtremely fine, almost too musical and gentlemanly,– also Gelber, Weissenberg, and Argerich. Kocsisd, who usually takes everything very fast, is left standing by Weissenberg. But it[‘s Horowitz I want to hear, again. Cliburn and Kapell might have been included with Rachmaninoff to make a baker’s dozen. Rachmaninoff dedicated it to Josef Hofmann, who never performed it, nor did Richter. Moiseiwitsch played it onloy a few times, but there is no record.

  • kh says:

    What a shame the piano is so horribly recorded. All of them except maybe Hough’s and Lugansky’s recordings!! The sound of the piano is completely flattened in favour of “clarity”. How can we even start to compare them when we get very little sense from these recordings of the layered sonorities and beautiful colours that these pianists are capable of extracting from a concert grand?

    I found that in a recording of violin sonatas or cello sonatas the piano is often fairly represented, but when it comes to piano concertos or piano solo recordings, sound engineers somehow think it’s a good idea to make the piano sound as “clean” as possible, and often with an extremely compressed dynamic range. Why do they do this?? It has come to the point now where even audience recordings sound better than these officially filmed recordings or even studio recordings.

  • E says:

    This was a pleasure to hear, ‘specially as one or another
    video was from decades ago –. Thanks, Norman.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Well, of course, all the pianists here are technically up to the challenge.
    Weissenberg and Argerich went for maximum fireworks which, in my opinion, and to my disappointment, diminished the music.
    To name one favorite among the ten is not possible, but I was most musically satisfied by the performances of Gelber, Achucarro, Zilberstein and Yuja, all of whom emphasized the lyrical aspects of the cadenza as much as the virtuoso aspect.
    I was also very pleased by Kocsis’ performance (I love the way he shot his cuffs just before the cadenza! Shades of Ed Norton!) His cycle of Rachmaninoff’s concerted works with De Waart and the SF Symphony have always been quite underrated.
    Luganski was the most dramatic and was also most impressive.
    The audio dropouts in Hough’s performance were unfortunate, but he played beautifully. For some reason, I never thought of him as a Rachmaninoff player, but he was excellent.
    Horowitz played generally very well, but to my surprise seemed a bit restrained, especially compared to Weissenberg, Argerich, and Luganski. Perhaps he was tired.

    • Pedro says:

      I think he was superb but perhaps a little nervous as it was his first live concerto in decades, as far as I know. He, Martha and Wang are for me the best here, but all the other are in their ways very impressive.

      • Piano fan says:

        It was actually Horowitz’s fifth performance of that concerto in that year – three with Ormandy, two with Mehta. It was also the last time he played the Rachmaninoff 3rd, or any concerto, in public.

        He was also a few days shy of this 75th birthday, so I’d cut him some slack for holding back.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Horowitz. Every time.

  • Nijinsky says:

    Just to be fair, one would have to hear Malofeev it starts 10:45 in the video (the cadenza)

    • Daniel Poulin says:

      Malofeev plays the “Ossia” cadenza. The question was who’s your choice for the “regular” cadenza.

    • Anon says:

      Wonderful performance. (First time he played it by the way).

      But it’s the Ossia cadenza.

      • Nijinsky says:

        Yeah, I noticed it wasn’t the same cadenza. I didn’t like Malofeev at first, thought that he sounded like he was in overdrive, but I think that was from some bad clips on youtube, maybe from the Tchaikovsky competition where he didn’t play so well. But then youtube kept offering me videos of him on the side, and I finally listened to one, Saint-Saëns, and was quite surprised.
        Even when he’s creating a whole din on the piano, from all the chords, there’s still a melodic line that comes out rather than it sounds like a demolition zone, and in the more lyrical passage you here the lilt of the melody, the line itself again, rather than a display of what kind of a sensual indulgence he makes out of it.

        He says something interesting in an interview also, that he feels that the music sort of has it’s own way with composers (I can’t remember his wording exactly right now), rather than the other way around, and that’s very true. It’s really not an ego thing. Doesn’t work that way.

  • M2N2K says:

    Obviously all of them can play it – some of them better than others – and each one of us will have our favorites in accordance with our individual tastes. However, every such cadenza is only a part of a piece – or at the very least of a movement – and therefore should not be judged when taken out of context because such evaluation will necessarily be misleading. But if we cannot resist the temptation of comparing piano cadenzas only, my choice would be the big one from the first movement of Prokofiev’s Second. A few years ago Daniil Trifonov’s playing of this dramatic cadenza caused me to feel very real (and extremely rare for me) goosebumps when he was performing that Concerto with our orchestra.

    • Anon says:

      If you are who I think you are, I don’t think Trifonov has ever played Prokofiev 2nd with your orchestra. The only concertos he’s ever played with your orchestra are Rachmaninoff 2nd, Rachmaninoff 3rd, and Tchaikovsky 1st, in that order, no?

      • M2N2K says:

        Evidently I am not who you think I am.

        • Anon says:

          As a long time lurker on this site and an avid local follower of your orchestra, I don’t think I’m mistaken. The David O. and GD connections don’t point to many different people. Anyways apparently I missed the announcement of that concert (and really I couldn’t find any online information either), otherwise I would definitely have gone. Cheers and hoping to attend your concerts soon!

          • M2N2K says:

            This kind of ability to be completely confident about one’s own conclusions, even when they are reached based on circumstantial evidence only, is something I am not blessed with. But I am still hopeful because I do know that “not too many” is usually a number that is greater than 1. In any case, any orchestra is blessed when it has loyal fans. Even though one does not really qualify as a “lurker” anymore after posting multiple comments, I am so glad that at least one listener is eager to resume active concert-going life that I am pleased to wish any such person many years of continuing lurking pleasures as well as many happy returns to orchestral concerts.

          • Anon says:

            This turned up during my fruitless search for that Prokofiev 2nd concert with Trifonov. The name of the author of the first comment is another piece of “circumstantial evidence”, I suppose.


            In any case, I was only surprised that I missed Trifonov playing Prokofiev 2nd. It would be an event that I would really loved to have gone to.

    • Anon says:

      And the last time your orchestra played this piece is with Yuja Wang. Before that, Vladimir Feltsman.

      • M2N2K says:

        You must be thinking of a different orchestra or maybe looking at incomplete information because, while we have indeed played that concerto with several other pianists in the past, the most memorable performance of it for me was the one by Daniil Trifonov.

    • Bratsche brat says:

      Trifonov is an automaton when playing Rach 3. Argerich or Matsuev or take a hike.

  • Bratsche brat says:

    For crying out loud, making comparisons like this and leaving out Matsuev is absurd! Watch the video with him in Berlin with Gergiev – the only pianist who can rival Martha with this piece.

  • David says:

    Earl Wild’s is phenomenal.

    • Jeffrey Biegel says:

      Earl was wonderful. And do seek out Alicia de Larrocha’s. Yes, she managed this concerto so elegantly.

  • Scordatura says:

    All these folks deserve to sit in front of an orchestra. However, I find Horowitz unfailingly imaginative-what an ear he had! Hough gets very high marks for clarity. Who was his conductor? That orchestral cut off seemed unnecessarily strangled.

  • CYM says:

    For accuracy, intelligence and musical flow, unjustly neglected Weissenberg is my top choice

    • Hilary says:

      Without doubt, one of the great pianists of the 20th Century.
      An accomplished composer and graphic artist as well.

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    I used to think the “Ossia” cadenza was the better one. Now, after watching those 10 excellent pianists in the “regular” cadenza, I have to reconsider my opinion. Both cadenzas are amazing and all these outstanding pianists are simply prodigious. If I had to chose a favourite one, I would go with Zoltan Kocsis.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I believe it was Gary Graffmann who described it as a ‘knuckle breaker’ and one can see why!

  • SVR for the win says:

    Sergei Rachmaninoff – 8:55 –

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    The ultimate performance would be Rachmaninoff playing and Gustav Mahler conducting in New York in 1910. Rachmaninoff wrote of Mahler, “At that time, Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with [Artur] Nikisch. He touched my composer’s heart straight away… According to Mahler every detail of the score was important – an attitude rare among conductors”. For more see,

    • Nicholas says:

      What a great advertisement for a pharmaceutical antidepressant to have Mahler and Rachmaninoff on the same stage.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Byron Janis, Gilels, Graffman, and Matsuev would be good to hear also. The best live performance I’ve seen was by Matsuev and Gergiev. I saw Horowitz only on film. Cortot played it and conducted it with Rachmaninoff as soloist

    • I agree that Gary Graffman’s interpretation would be good to hear. Alas, if you’ve read his book “I Really Should Be Practicing”, you will find out that he regretted never having learned it, and as a youngster he learned the 2nd Rachmaninoff concerto instead.

      His recording of the 2nd with L. Bernstein was the first recording of it I ever heard, and until today it remains my favorite collaboration in that work.

  • Bernadette says:

    Such an interesting collection of interpretations. My favorite is Grigory Sokolov. He transcends the virtuoso display and turns the cadenza into real drama – and he creates the most amazing orchestral sound from the piano.

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    Just to add some variety to these comments, I find Horowitz’s performance to be both technically and musically WELL below the level of the others shown here. As always, I note that this is entirely my opinion, and is not intended to, and should not in any way influence yours.

  • fflambeau says:

    These pianists were all amazing; I could not pick a favorite. I was pleasantly surprised by some I did not know like Zilberstein and Lugansky. Such talent and what am amazing work. Thanks.

  • Philip myers says:

    OK, first of all, thank you Norman, so interesting, fascinating, dignifying. Everyone you presented deserved to be here and a few of these people I do not know after fifty years in the business I will now look for.
    I hope I am not reacting to the ethic of our time but I find Yuja so deep over and over again, no matter what the repertoire. Obviously every one of these people are in command of the keyboard, but emotionally she seems to me a step beyond.

  • M.Arnold says:

    Norman, how about a quiz? Many years ago, WQXR, NYC’s classical music station, had a program called “First Hearing” in which music critics tried to name the artists on not yet released recordings. As a music loving non-musician who can’t read a note, I’d like to see you pick a bunch of recordings of famous soloists playing the same music and see if your followers can pick out the artists.

    • Shalom Rackovsky says:

      I vividly remember an episode of First Hearing in which a recording of a piano work was played. The critics were unanimous and vicious in panning the performance as unmusical, unnuanced and technically second-rate. It turned out the artist was Rudolf Serkin. It was a treat listening to the panelists frantically backpedalling, trying [unsuccessfully] to reinterpret what they had just explicitly said….

    • fflambeau says:

      Wild backslapping of preferred favorites is the norm here; any actual knowledge is superfluous and just gets in the way of confirmed prejudices.

  • Edgar Self says:

    There are half a dozen recordings by Horowitz of this concerto over 46 years from his first in 1930 with Albert Coates, a record few can match. Others are with Barbirolli, Koussevitzky, Reiner, Ormandy, and Mehta. Only with Ormandy can I hear clearly the string after-beats in the introductory measures before the piano’s entry.

  • Paul Carlile says:

    Weissenberg: a machine-gunner, metallic, brutal, unmusical….(ghastly, unidiomatic orchestra, btw).
    Horowitz: too tired and old, altho some brief flashes of genius. Best heard with Reiner (1951).
    Martha: the Tigress unleashed….altho i loke it even better when i heard her live (Philharmonia).
    Gelber: pity poor sound, good brilliant flow, some surprising mini-slips.
    Kocsis: the cleanest, modern approach, quite toccata-like; an interesting viewpoint.
    Achuccarro: too weak and hesitant for my taste.
    Hough: finesse and imagination altho the chordal climax momentarily unhorsed him!
    Zilberstein: routine, four-square, unmemorable.
    Lugansky: excellently played, good combination of brilliance and power.
    Yuja: a surprising, almost meandering start leads to one of the very best; no routine here, she demonstrates well that the cadenza needn’t disrupt the music (ref: J Borstlap!).

    A fascinating video, thank you.

  • Edgsr Se;f says:

    I enjoyed reading Paul Carlile’s detailed comment on each player. Horowitz indubitably was 25 years younger for Reiner, yet the musical rhetoric was still in his blood.

  • Wonderful performances from Achúcarro and Lugansky!

  • Vovka Ashkenazy
    Wonderful performances from Achúcarro and Lugansky, but of course I still have my all-time favourite for both cadenzas, and he does not feature among the ten listed above.