The interpretation seemed even more firmly planted in the classical era in retrospect after the second half of the program opened with the Symphony No. 8.
Here, Beethoven was passionate and muscular, the orchestra lean, powerful and, almost without exception, immaculate. (The exceptions to cleanliness came in the third movement, courtesy of the horns and principal clarinetist Anthony M. Gigliotti.)
The second movement became an energetic, strident little march, and the entire score was brushed with determined personality.
True, most of the contrast between the two works lay in the writing, but Sawallisch took dramatic steps to draw attention to that fact.
For the very last moments of the first movement of the Eighth (the last measure and one-third), Sawallisch managed a breathtaking feat: Those last few notes vanished quickly, mysteriously, elegantly into thin air. The moment was one of those subtleties of the baton that few other conductors seem able to pull off with this orchestra.
The ensemble took on a marvelously burnished sound in the Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b, which Sawallisch shaped with similar drama. Timpanist Don S. Liuzzi created a presence that was loud and full yet still quite mellow. Principal trumpeter David Bilger's big, fat sound rang impressively from a spot just off stage.
THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA Conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. Performed Thursday night at the Academy of Music.
Additional performances: 8 tonight and Tuesday. Tickets are $4 to $78. Information: 215-893-1999.