MUSIC / Taking the smooth with the smooth: Stephen Johnson on the VPO, conducted by James Levine, at the South Bank

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WHEN THE BBC Symphony Orchestra visited Vienna in 1936, they brought two new works: Vaughan Williams's Fourth Symphony and Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra. After the concert, the Austrian president complimented the conductor, Adrian Boult, on his choice of the Vaughan Williams - 'But', he continued, 'who is this Schoenberg?'

A mere politician's gaffe, or a moment of civic self-revelation? And if the latter, are the members of today's Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra any closer to regarding Schoenberg as echt-wienerisch? One can hardly say for certain on the basis of one performance. But it was striking that in their Wednesday programme at the Royal Festival Hall, the work in which they showed least understanding was the only one by a Vienna-born composer - the father of the Second Viennese School, no less. Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces can be a stirring experience; at once a dazzling orchestral display-piece and a trawl through murky subliminal regions. In this performance it was neither. Violent and shrill outbursts had little edge, scatological bass brass comments in the first piece sounded almost apologetic, and there were surprising moments of textural fuzziness in No 4.

Most disappointing was the fifth piece, the 'obbligato recitative'. As William Mann's notes declared, this is no recitative, but 'a melody, a marvellous one' - or rather it can be, when the line is passed from instrument to instrument as in a kind of airborne relay race. There were some nice splashes of colour here and there, and some departments - notably the first violins - brought feeling and style to individual phrases; but coherent, shapely in the larger sense, it wasn't.

The contrast with their Brahms Third Symphony was extreme. The conductor, James Levine, had evidently put great effort into shaping. The rise and fall of each phrase was measured carefully, with high- points always clearly marked. But there were moments at which this superbly controlled shaping and shading veered over into mannerism: the sudden piano-crescendo in the first theme (which thanks to the exposition repeat we heard three times), or a still more startling hush in the following clarinet tune.

One could always lie back and enjoy the sound - luxuriously beautiful, and near perfect in balance and synchronisation. Looking down the ranks of the strings in the Brahms it was startling to see back- desk players throwing themselves into the music as energetically as the leaders - with London orchestras it's often a very different picture.

But homogeneity has its down-side. The rediscovery both of period instruments, and of classic recordings like the BBC SO / Toscanini Fourth Symphony, has made many listeners realise how much is gained when Brahm's orchestral music admits something of the spirit of chamber playing - unity in spite of sometimes astringent diversity of colour and personality. To judge from the VPO's smooth, perfectly graded crescendos and carefully blended woodwind and brass chords, the ideal could have been the modern pipe-organ - one hugely sophisticated instrument, utterly at the command of one human being.

In Debussy's La mer however, this quality had its advantages. Ebb and flow were well-calculated; even at its most expansive the performance maintained its tension, and the ensemble held like glue. One or two figures emerged more suavely than Debussy's admittedly capricious markings would seem to indicate, but there were gorgeous things too - especially the radiant stillness at the heart of the finale. And the coda rose as though on a huge tide. If Levine and the VPO set out to emphasise the symphonic element in Debussy's subtitle, 'Trois esquisses symphoniques', they succeeded.