The Bamberg Symphony played the first of their two concerts at Lincoln Center on Sunday. The program had something of a Viennese bent, with works by Anton Webern (of the Second Viennese School), Schubert (the first of the great Romantics to call the city home), and Brahms (who lived there most of his life). Jonathan Nott conducted and pianist Christian Zacharias performed on the concert’s second half. The Bambergers impressed with their warm sound, unified ensemble playing, and passionate engagement with the music.

Mr. Nott, who became Bamberg’s Principal Conductor in 2000, has blazed a trail with this orchestra in a variety of repertoire. Although they may lack the name recognition with American audiences of a Berlin Philharmonic, the Bamberg Symphony are a formidable artistic force and play uncannily well together. And while unfamiliar repertoire or underplayed pieces by eminent composers can be used as a crutch for the artistically insecure, it was obvious from their playing (and Mr. Nott’s leadership) that this afternoon, variety was present simply for its own sake. Moreover, their program for Monday evening comprises Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4, Ives’ The Unanswered Question, and Schubert’s Symphony no. 8, “Unfinished”: popular masterpieces by which an orchestra’s true character may be judged.

Webern’s pointillism in the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 may not seem like the ideal piece to show off an orchestra’s sound, especially at the beginning of a concert. This orchestra’s lush strings and supple woodwinds dazzled anyway, no matter how sparse the texture. Their playing was a wonderful illustration of Klangfarbenmelodie, the Second Viennese School concept of a musical line changing tone-color as it is passed from one instrument to the next. Here, each momentary soloist lent a uniquely human voice to his part.

Quality of sound was paramount in the Romantic works, too. Take the Brahms Piano Concerto no. 2, for instance. Rather than risk the occasional harsh tone in order to tower dynamically over the orchestra, Mr. Zacharias astutely took a more symphonic approach to passages where the piano and orchestra are equally important. His reading satisfied an interpretational issue (not undermining the significance of the orchestra part) as well as a practical one (maintaining a beautiful sound). The Schubert Symphony no. 4, “Tragic”, was buoyed by a bold string sound and subtle mixing of timbres.

Walking on stage as a group, rather than having individuals take their places before the audience is attentive, presented the orchestra as a collective “artist” worthy of recognition. The self-effacing artistry which so characterized their playing also governed the relationship between the orchestra and its conductor; they were as deserving of a round of applause as he. Typical of their strong ensemble spirit were the fast tempi, accepted without resentment by soloists who may have wished to have a larger spotlight. For example, the horns and principal cello in the first and third movements (respectively) of the Brahms typically relish certain moments at the expense of continuity. This afternoon, though, the slow movement was taken at a true andante, allowing all cross-rhythms to come through clearly.

Mr. Nott and Mr. Zacharias dug much deeper than the printed score, and the orchestra members were enthusiastically behind all of their ideas. This vigorous engagement with the music extended beyond the notes played, too. The Schubert began directly after the Webern, without a break for applause. Similar to the way Mr. Nott closely juxtaposed the individual symphonic and concerto movements, this served to build tension and keep the audience listening closely. But unluckily for several musicians, those who played in the six-minute Webern but were not needed for the Schubert had simply to sit on stage for the duration of that much longer work.

As for the Schubert, Mr. Nott made a good case for this piece. Despite its nickname, there’s not much particularly “tragic” going on; the first and last movements start with minor-key pathos but blossom into unimpeded optimism. The tender second movement and the Menuetto are both in major keys, and in the latter Mr. Nott pushed Schubert’s witty hemiola (duple feel in triple meter – think of “America” from West Side Story) to the brink of excess.

Mr. Zacharias shunned overly romanticized gestures and pianistic tricks in the Brahms concerto, instead unifying larger sections without fuss, a crucial part of any coherent reading of this mammoth work. The first movement featured fluid tempi, with increased momentum in the most agitated moments, a technique that was supposedly a hallmark of Brahms’ own playing. Mr. Zacharias’ reading of the Allegro appassionato was tempestuous nearly at the expense of clarity, but daring and always riveting. After the lovely and fluid Andante, the final movement’s graceful romp – these are not necessarily mutually exclusive qualities in Brahms – provided the perfect close to this afternoon of intelligent, hands-on artistry.

****1