RCA Records coined the phrase ''the Aristocrat of Orchestras'' for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the '60s. And yet it has always been a sobriquet better suited to the Cleveland Orchestra.
The Cleveland was in residence last weekend at Tanglewood - summer home of the Boston Symphony - while the BSO toured the European festivals. It afforded an as-yet rare glimpse of music-director-designate Christoph von Dohnanyi at work with the ensemble he officially takes over next month. But more than that, it was another welcome opportunity to hear these remarkable players at work.
No other American orchestra plays with such refinement, elegance of tone, and keen alertness to what each of the other players is doing. One is always aware, with the Cleveland, of a sound that is player-generated, rather than conductor-imposed. It is the essence of what George Szell strove to achieve during his 24-year tenure. It is, essentially, the quality that Lorin Maazel decided to keep alive and flourishing during his decade of leadership. And as heard this past weekend in scintillating accounts of Dvorak's Eighth Symphony and Beethoven's Third (''Eroica''), it is something Dohnanyi clearly wants to nurture as well.
The orchestra has paid annual visits to New York since Mr. Maazel left, all under the baton of Erich Leinsdorf. This past May, I caught up with two of the Carnegie Hall programs and found that the still-leaderless orchestra had in no way lost its collective spirit, its collective ablility to remind the careful listener that this remains one of the great ensembles of the world.
Mr. Leinsdorf seemed to revel in quiet dynamics in his two programs. A Mahler Fourth was given the quietest performance imaginable. The Cleveland is the only orchestra in this country that can sustain those hushed dynamics without a loss of tonal quality. A new pliancy of phrasing was heard from the conductor; he was at all times relying on the players' musical instincts and accomplishments, and passing on his appreciation of them to the audience. When Kathleen Battle's limpid, silvery soprano joined the orchestra in the fourth movement, the mutual blending of colors made for something altogether exceptional.
The same qualities pervaded Leinsdorf's performance of Strauss's ''Don Quixote,'' with particularly communicative solo work from the orchestra's first cellist, Stephen Geber.
The unique properties of the Cleveland were not altogether in evidence at the first Tanglewood concert. In the Mendelssohn ''Scottish'' Symphony (No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56), Dohnanyi took a rather soft-edged view of the music, and the playing assumed an uncharacteristic diffuseness of quality and timbre. Orchestrally, things were better in the Brahms Second Piano Concerto (B-flat major, Op. 83), though that work suffered from soloist Emanuel Ax's tenuousness of purpose and a consequent lack of assurance from the maestro.
But the Dvorak of the following evening effaced all quibbles. Here was clearly the work of a conductor who trusted the players to make great music together. He sets the outer framework, then allows the articulation to be handled by the players. He may indicate a rubato here, a phrase break there, but he expects the players to execute them with consummate musicianship. They did not disappoint.
The Beethoven, expectedly, had a different color and weight to the playing, but again, here was an orchestra that could do with taste just about anything the conductor might ask of it. Dohnanyi's opening tempo was bracing, yet the second movement, ''Marcia funebre,'' had a sustained weightiness that made it particularly communicative of the mood at hand. From ultravirtuosic flourishes to that uncanny quiet playing, it was an ''Eroica'' from conductor and ensemble that was full of elucidating details, rather than attention-getting ones.
What about Dohnanyi in concertos? It was alarming to hear the lack of direction in the Brahms, for one expected the conductor would help this gifted young soloist, who is clearly just beginning his wrestlings with one of the most demanding works in the repertoire. In Lalo's ''Symphonie Espagnole'' (D minor, Op. 21), Mr. Dohnanyi took the lead, shaping the five movements of elegant fluff into a sparkling, energetic whole.
Soloist Shlomo Mintz seemed intent on heart-on-the-sleeve emotionalism in a work demanding refinement and elegance. The bravura moments were exciting enough , but the moments of sustained lyricism emerged with a gruff edge that better became this prodigiously talented violinist a few years ago, when he was still in the ''gifted youngster'' category.
In Mozart's first Flute Concerto (G major, K. 313), Dohnanyi matched soloist Jean-Pierre Rampal's elegantly turned phrases and gave the flutist - who was not in top form - a stylish framework through which to show his patrician, tasteful musicmaking.
Dohnanyi is not afraid of tackling the unknown, as he did with Carl Ruggles's ''Men and Mountains,'' given a suitably craggy, monumental reading.
This season he brings Schoenberg's exceptionally tough ''Die Jakobsleiter'' to New York (Oct. 17), along with Berg's Violin Concerto (Oct. 20) and Janacek's ''Taras Bulba'' (May 15).