Review: National Philharmonic plays Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, Dvorak’s 8th Symphony

Today Haochen Zhang played the second of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos with the National Philharmonic Orchestra at Strathmore.  The program also included Dvorak’s 8th Symphony, composed in Bohemia shortly after the striking success of his 7th.

Zhang is a Van Cliburn winner and played like it; the orchestra responded in kind.  I found only one tiny flaw, and that not, from my recollection of various recordings, uncommon: at fortissimo the orchestra did once or twice simply drown the sound of the piano.  Though I was also in the second balcony.

He also performed – not on the program but as an encore to the first half – a solo piano piece which I did not recognize but believe by length and form was a movement of a sonata, perhaps Schumann or Brahms.

The Dvorak unfortunately did not come up to the same standard.  The first movement was clean, beginning beautifully and remaining solid.  The second opened in unremarkable fashion, but when the emphasis was in the brass, the string sound was muddy, damaging the force of the crescendos marking the halfway point and again near the end.  This might again be due to my position in the balcony, but here I suspect not.  The orchestra handled the waltz opening the third movement wonderfully, but the more energetic second portion felt cluttered.  In the final allegro the opening fanfare was good but the transition notes to the main portion were awkwardly phrased; the movement was otherwise solid but the brass once again had a tendency to run over the strings a bit, although the finale came together just about perfectly.

My impression was that the orchestra – or the conductor – Piotr Gajewski – overdoes everything just a little bit.  Loud brass a bit too loud, the slow a bit too slow, the energetic with more focus on energy than precision.  Altogether a good concert, but not a great one.

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