Mstislav Rostropovich led the National Symphony last night in a rigorous, deeply committed performance of Tchaikovsky's "Pathe'tique" Symphony.

It was the principal event in last night's concert, one of the series this week previewing what the orchestra will take on its two-week tour of the nation and Canada, beginning Monday.

The starkness of Rostropovich's view of this most pessimistic of Tchaikovsky's works -- an inner dramatic panorama ending in despair and death -- is particularly uncompromising.

Perhaps that is not what one would expect from the conspicuously ebullient Rostropovich. One might expect this openly emotional man's "Pathe'tique" to be more heart on the sleeve, milking the pathos out of the music.

Rostropovich treated the great work more like a real symphony in the traditional sense than as a wrenching tone poem that just happens to be in four movements instead of one.

In the ultimately cataclysmic opening movement, the introductions of the two main themes were more restrained than often heard, the way you might do the opening themes of Brahms. There was plenty of force. But the interpretation had a logic that is often lost in the onslaught of the approaching tragedy.

Likewise, the martial third movement, just about the most theatrically socko piece ever put into a symphony, was not played for thrills. The ensemble playing was very fine.

Rostropovich is famous for his Russianness, but as was heard last night Russianness does not always mean excess. Grim as the interpretation was, it did not wallow in pathos, as happens so often in this work.

There were details with which one might quibble, like that broad ritard at the height of the first-movement storm. But this was an interpretation that was both carefully reasoned and felt, conducted with real authority.

One cannot help but compare it with the generalized me'lange of a "Pathe'tique" that Zubin Mehta conducted here only last Saturday. Mehta's was competent conducting. Rostropovich's was serious music making. There is a whale of a difference.