Since the late '40s, when European orchestras started touring here in large numbers, Americans have tended to value the impact of visiting ensembles by the size of their splashes. To treat the Beethoven symphony concerts at the Kennedy Center over the weekend by the Orchestre de Paris with such a measure would be to missits greatest strength -- and show an unbecominglack of sophistication.

No. This was not white-heated virtuoso Beethoven in the grand Toscanini tradition. This was sterner, more monumental Beethoven. Under Daniel Barenboim's baton, it was often utterly absorbing.

On Saturday night, Barenboim conducted the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, and yesterday afternoon the "Pastorale" and the Seventh. At the finest moments -- the first movement of the Fifth, the slow movement of the "Pastorale," the last three movements of the Seveneth -- this was powerful stuff.

This way of doing Beethoven involves a rearrangement of emphases within the music. Fleetness has to yield some to rhetoric. The elements that contribute to sonic excitement -- rhythmic bouyancy, sensuous textures, wide dynamic contrasts -- are less dominant. Harmonic change is shoved more to the fore as a backbone of a movement, bowings are generally longer and heavier and the whole sound is weightier.

Yesterday afternoon's slow and wonderfully steady movement of the "Pastorale" was a fine example. This is a programmatic work that Beethoven labels "Scene by the Brook." And if you listen to Bernstein or von Karajan it will seem quite descriptive. Barenboim conducted it more as a pure and innocent mental state that might derive from such a scene. A religious implication was added.

Why should it take a 14-year-old Paris orchestra under an Israeli conductor (who is also a famous pianist) to bring us this kind of playing? Barenboim is very serious about what he is doing and has the orchestra in the palm of his hand. The Orchestre de Paris is not yet the great virtuoso ensemble that Andre' Malraux and Charles Munch set it up to be, but in many ways it is doing important work.