The Dresden Staatskapelle, which gave an orchestral concert last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, claims a tradition dating back to 1548.

It was not an orchestra then, to be sure; there were no orchestras, as we understand the term, in 1548. But the court chorus that was founded in that year for religious services and festive occasions grew to include an opera company, which needed an orchestra, which began giving purely orchestral concerts. This is an orchestra that can quote praise from Beethoven: "It is generally said that the orchestra in Dresden is the best in Europe."

Last night, with Sir Colin Davis conducting, the Dresden Staatskapelle sounded almost that good, at least for two-thirds of its program. In Haydn's Symphony No. 100 ("Military"), the pace and rhythms were properly sprightly, the tone was rich and beautifully balanced and the joyfully brilliant spirit of the music was caught to perfection.

The same was true in "Till Eulenspiegel," in which Richard Strauss is even more inventive than Haydn, and his delight in instrumental colors combines ideally with his talent for making music seem pictorial. In both works, the transparency of violin tone gave the wind instruments more presence than they often have in American orchestras. This is totally appropriate.

The Second Symphony of Jan Sibelius was impressive. But in a hall where it has been played by such orchestras as the Philadelphia, the Dresden sound seemed a bit lacking in muscle for the climactic moments when the audience must be blown out of its seats. The ensemble sound was also a bit fuzzy at times, particularly in the first movement, whereas it had been a model of clarity in the two Germanic compositions. It might have been wiser for the orchestra to have played Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which had originally been scheduled.