The Cleveland Orchestra began well and got progressively better last night at the Kennedy Center, in a program that sounded unlike the Cleveland Orchestra of old.

The music of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its glory, from Mozart and Haydn to Brahms and Dvorak, was the standard bill of fare for Cleveland during the 24 years of the late George Szell's music directorship. With this repertoire, he built it a reputation as one of the world's great orchestras, sometimes called the largest chamber ensemble in the world.

It still sounded like a great orchestra last night under Music Director Christoph von Dohna'nyi, but it hardly ever sounded like any kind of a chamber ensemble. The repertoire made that at best unlikely: Berlioz's Overture to "Beatrice and Benedict," Sibelius' Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's "Pathe'tique" Symphony. Interesting music from beginning to end, but not a note that sounded Austro-Hungarian and very few passages that could be played like chamber music.

Most of the performance problems were audible in the first few minutes and not at all thereafter: a touch of tentativeness in the phrasing, a bit of thinness in the string tone and rawness in the winds (though not the horns). But almost immediately, the orchestra was producing delicate pianissimos and exciting crescendos with perfect unanimity, and the overture ended much better than it had begun.

The orchestra's power was relatively muted in the concerto, possibly because violinist Daniel Majeske, though technically excellent and very good in the music's lyrical passages, does not have the world's most powerful tone. Even with the restraint imposed by Dohna'nyi, his sound was sometimes lost in that of the orchestra, and there were moments that lacked the ultimate tension because the soloist and orchestra did not seem equally matched.

The "Pathe'tique" is one of music's greatest examples of an artistically exploited neurosis, and the orchestra, freed of warm-up problems and the need to accommodate a soloist, threw itself into Tchaikovsky's hysteria with a gusto that might have surprised Szell but delighted the audience.