The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, which played at the Kennedy Center last night as part of its fifth American tour, is less familiar to American audiences than its fabulous counterpart, the Philharmonic. It is our good fortune to hear the Philharmonic quite often. But members of the packed house for the Symphony discovered that if -- horror of horrors -- Vienna were suddenly to lose the Philharmonic, it would still have a superior orchestra.
The Symphony has much of that same dark Viennese sound that has characterized the Philharmonic -- whether under Bo hm or Bernstein. Strings are full and weighty -- even though there are only eight basses, just like the Philadelphia. The winds are deep and considerably less transparent than those of the greatest American orchestras. And the brasses have that wonderful mellow Viennese resonance.
What is sometimes missing is the enormous range of color that seems almost second nature to the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as the degree of daring and chance-taking that the Philharmonic often brings to its phrasing.
Last night's concert was under the eminent Wolfgang Sawallisch, music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and a musician of true distinction whose career in the United States has been regrettably limited (he is a regular guest in Philadelphia and should be brought here by the National Symphony).
The evening began with a superb version of Brahms' Tragic Overture, a dark, dramatic piece that fits the orchestra's sound to perfection. In some hands, the overture can become episodic, but it was memorably shaped by Sawallisch; that elusive line between its musical logic and its dramatic character was precisely caught. And, on the whole, this was the finest playing of the evening (along with a delightfully pointed "Die Fledermaus" Overture that was the encore).
Next there was a beautifully executed Mozart "Jupiter" Symphony. Though the orchestra was reduced, the performance was still of the rich and heavy variety -- but the "Jupiter" is made of such sturdy matter that this approach is not inappropriate. Once again, Sawallisch treaded that line between logic and drama with assurance. If there was a problem, it was with the woodwinds. They were so dark that some of those enchanting couplings of winds with other instruments failed to balance properly.
The final work, Richard Strauss' mighty "Ein Heldenleben," was played splendidly, but was less opulent and rhapsodic than I prefer. A young concertmaster, Jan Pospichal, played the intricate solo violin passages with skill.