Regular American visits have become almost routine for the orchestras of the leading European cities. Thus the first trip to this country of the Munich Philharmonic, which played at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, was something unusual.
Even through recordings the Munich orchestra -- a venerable 92 years old -- is not all that well known.
What struck one most emphatically was that it is big in every sense. How many other orchestras have 10 basses, for instance? By comparison, the little old Philadelphia has a mere eight.
There is a particular sound to an orchestra like the Munich that one would never confuse with the greater transparency of American virtuoso ensembles. It lies in the lower reaches. On Saturday night guest conductor Lorin Maazel spent much time reining that bass sound.
Still, the weight worked to advantage in the first half of the program. There was a beautifully shaped performance of Weber's overture to his opera "Oberon." Maazel kept the dynamics under fine control, especially in crucial dark instruments like the trombones and the horns.
Likewise, the players were at home in the dark timbres of the grand symphony that Paul Hindemith drew from three pivotal religious episodes from his 1934 opera, "Mathis der Maler," a grave but ultimately hopeful work based on the life of painter Matthias Gru newald. It concludes in a movement of ambivalent eloquence depicting Gru newald's altarpiece on the visit of St. Anthony to St. Paul. The music is mostly strings and brass and dark registers -- and came like second nature to the Munich orchestra's first violins and cellos.
It was the Munich orchestra's particular good fortune to have Maazel, who happens to have some free time now as a result of his contretemps at the Vienna Opera. He was pushing the orchestra for all that it was worth -- with the most painstaking and detailed directions. Even if one disagrees with some of his ideas, the man's concentration is beyond dispute.
If the players worked less well in Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony than in the other works, that is probably the fault of neither the orchestra nor the conductor. The Fifth requires special polish, and it may be just a bit beyond the consistent level of the Munich orchestra. In this work the articulation of the horns and the first violins was sometimes distractingly frayed, but other times quite musical.