Comprising a list of the best orchestras in the world was no easy feat, with dozens – if not hundreds – of leading modern orchestras and period bands around the world, all making waves in their respective countries and bringing music to the masses. Orchestras will be constantly in flux, with changes made to line-ups, conductors, repertoire and funding.
However, those playing at the top of their game will usually maintain a sense of consistency; an immutable, familiar tone and sound that is merely enhanced and shaped by the maestro on the podium. We've picked out some of those top orchestras – the ones you should always make an effort to see if they're touring or you happen to be passing through their home country. In the meantime, we've also suggested a few recommended recordings so you can have a flavour of the ensembles performing at their best.
Which are the best orchestras in the world?
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is based in Munich and is a crack broadcasting ensemble that has emerged in recent decades to challenge the world’s best (although Leonard Bernstein knew its quality, and regularly collaborated with the BRSO for several years). Rafael Kubelík, Colin Davis (who introduced them to more regular English fare) and Lorin Maazel have all made their mark but, yet again, it’s been Mariss Jansons who has pushed the orchestra into the limelight of late. Their performances and recordings, on the recently launched BR-Klassik label, are impeccably wrought, finely detailed affairs.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 (1890 version)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
BR Klassik 900165 80:07 mins
Read our review here.
Over its 140-year history, the Berlin Philharmonic has been a consistent powerhouse, attracting the very best players and performing with a perfection of which most orchestras can only dream. Founded in 1882, the BPO has been steered by the likes Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan whose nose for commercial opportunities and love of new tech saw the orchestra dominate the classical recording industry in the 1980s.
Claudio Abbado carved a new identity for the orchestra during the 1990s, with a greater amount opera and modern music, while Simon Rattle brought the orchestra screaming into the 21st century (he was appointed in 1999) with a still wider gamut and an engagement with the broader Berlin community. Politically, the Berlin Phil has been slow to catch up – it wasn’t until 1982 that the it appointed its first female player – clarinettist Sabine Meyer.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 1-9
Annette Dasch (soprano), Eva Vogel (mezzo), Christian Elsner (tenor), Dimitry Ivashchenko (bass); Berlin Radio Choir; Berlin Philharmonic/Sir Simon Rattle
Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR 160091 (5 CDs +2 Blu-rays + 1 Pure Audio Blu-ray)
Read our review here.
Budapest Festival Orchestra
The Budapest Festival Orchestra has, under its director of music Iván Fischer, become one of Europe’s most important ensembles. In fact, it was Fischer who co-founded the ensemble almost 40 years ago with Zoltan Kocsis, and which since then has become renowned for its stunning surround-sound recordings of Mahler. Fischer is a dynamic leader and refuses to play by the book – which is why he gets the results he does.
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The BFO has break-out groups specialising in period instruments, contemporary music and Balkan folk which gives his players musical freedoms that in turn feeds back into the main ensemble. And regularly invites orchestra members to programme concerts and compete with each other for concerto slots. The players seem to respond, with playing of warmth and sharpness of ensemble.
Brahms: Symphony No. 4
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
Channel Classics CCS SA 35315 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Read our review here.
Since 1857, Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra has had its triumphant ups and devastating downs, to be sure. Despite some notable musical successes – including the premiere performance of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 – decades of financial trouble dogged it up until 1943 when the sure hand of John Barbirolli led it to international stardom. Barbirolli did his best until 1970, recording some of the finest performances of Mahler and Elgar on record, but years of mismanagement blighted the tenures of Stanisław Skrowaczewski and Kent Nagano, the latter of whom aimed high in his repertoire ambitions, and was criticised for it.
Under the current leadership of Mark Elder, however, the Hallé has risen to new heights, and is arguably the finest interpreter of English music of any ensemble. Their recordings of Wagner operas, too, have received particular acclaim.
Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos 4 & 6
Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
Hallé HLL 7547
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Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra lays claim to a 500-year history. But its modern incarnation is somewhat different to its ancestral ensemble of pipers… In the (relatively) modern era, its most famous conductor has been the composer Felix Mendelssohn, who lived in Leipzig and who premiered many of his own works with the orchestra. Since Mendelssohn, the likes of Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter have led the Gewandhaus Orchestra, but its golden era was under Kurt Masur who stayed over 25 years, between 1970 and 1996.
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With Masur, the orchestra made many acclaimed discs for the Philips and EMI labels, including a now legendary recording of Strauss’s Four Last Songs with soprano Jessye Norman, the Bruch and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos with Maxim Vengerov and symphony cycles of Mendelssohn and Beethoven. Riccardo Chailly’s tenure, between 2005 and 2016, was marked with many acclaimed Decca recordings – his recordings of Brahms’s complete symphonies and serenades is arguably the finest ever made. Andris Nelsons is just two years into his conductorship – the Leipzig Gewandhaus sounds as refined and majestic as ever.
Strauss: Vier letzte Lieder and Other Lieder
Jessye Norman (soprano), Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Masur
London Symphony Orchestra
The LSO can play anything – its players can seemingly turn on a halfpenny, performing Haydn one moment and Lutosławski the next, both with the same utter conviction and consummate skill. Its radiant sound (including a terrific brass section) and versatility has made it the go-to orchestra for film soundtracks, recording many of John Williams’s famous scores for the silver screen.
The LSO has enjoyed a vast roster of principal, guest and assistant conductors, all bringing their individual interpretations to bear. Its current roster (as of 2020) includes Simon Rattle (principal), Gianandrea Noseda, François-Xavier Roth, Michael Tilson Thomas and its current assistant, the dynamic young Felix Mildenberger. With past conductors including André Previn – who brought a media-friendly celebrity and energy to the orchestra – Claudio Abbado and, before Rattle, Valery Gergiev, the LSO is the most exciting orchestra in the UK, and its own LSO Live record label has produced recordings of the highest quality from its London Barbican home.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Barbara Hannigan (soprano); London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO 3028
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Currently under the directorship of Gustavo ‘the dude’ Dudamel, the century-old LA Phil divides its time between the extraordinary Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Hall and, in the summer months, the Hollywood Bowl. It prides itself on championing new music, a direction instigated by its previous intendant, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and its engagements with the community, new commissions and tours have been nothings short of ambitious.
During the 2018/19 season, over 60 living composers wrote works for the orchestra. Underneath its ambitious exterior lies an orchestra with a solid history – its previous conductors have included Zubin Mehta (1962-78), Carlo Maria Giulini (1978-84) and André Previn who remained with the orchestra for four years between 1985 and 1989 before moving to London to continue with the Royal Phiharmonic Orchestra. The Walt Disney Hall provides an acoustically clean platform for an orchestra with a versatile brief for both traditional repertoire and new music.
Lutosławski: The Symphonies
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Sony Classical 88765440832
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Founded in 1908, the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia was the first ensemble to devote itself to symphonic repertoire. Among its historic conductors, Giuseppe Sinopoli streered the orchestra around to Mahler and Bruckner, while Leonard Bernstein was its honorary president from 1983 to 1990. Under its current conductor Antonio Pappano (appointed in 2005), the Santa Cecilia orchestra, based in Rome, has flourished. Pappano has taken the orchestra across the world to the greatest festivals, and has made a mark with blistering recordings of Verdi, Respighi, Britten, Rossini and more. There’s a freshness and vitality to this ensemble that few can match.
Anja Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Erwin Schrott, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Ludovic Tézier; Orchestra e coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Sir Antonio Pappano
Warner Classics 2564610663
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Based in Amsterdam, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra came of age under the baton of conducting god Bernard Haitink, who stayed with the orchestra for over 25 years until 1988. His tenure wasn’t without controversy, however, and in the face of cuts in government financial support, Haitink threatened to resign.
Riccardo Chailly took over from Haitink, continuing the orchestra’s rule in Mahler, Brahms and 20th-century repertoire including Shostakovich and Stravinsky. The RCO’s fortunes continued with Mariss Jansons in post from 2004 who released spectacular recordings of Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich and much else. Daniele Gatti took over from Jansons in 2016, but was forced to stand down two years later following investigations into complaints of alleged inappropriate behaviour. The RCO is one of the most distinctive orchestras in the world – its smooth sound has no doubt been helped by the exceptional acoustics of the Concertgebouw main hall itself.
Mahler: Symphony No. 1
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
Accentus Music ACC 20335 62:24 mins
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
The 190 year-old Vienna Phil’s USP is its refusal to appoint a permanent principal conductor – which means that its players rule the roost. It’s also an orchestra previously mired by accusations of extreme conservatism: its first female member was not admitted until 1997. Today, however, the gender balance within is happier, and the orchestra plays with the same polish and sheen that has been the bedrock of its reputation over the years. On the surface, the VPO sounds different from most orchestras simply because it uses a higher-pitch tuning and different instruments including its clarinets (German Öhler system), a special ‘Wiener’ oboe and the ‘Vienna’ horn. But these aside, the VPO is still a crack orchestra, admired across the world. The orchestra performs its world-famous Johann Strauss-themed New Year’s Day concerts each year, broadcast to millions across the world.
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro
Hilde Gueden (Susanna), Cesare Siepi (Figaro), Lisa della Casa (Countess Almaviva), Alfred Poell (Count Almaviva), Suzanne Danco (Cherubino), Vienna Philharmonic/Erich Kleiber
Please note this list is in alphabetical order.
Oliver Condy is the former Editor of BBC Music Magazine, a post he held for 17 years. His debut book, Symphonies of the Soul: Classical Music to Cure Any Ailment, will be released in November 2021 with Octopus Books. He is also a semi-professional organist, having previously given recitals in Bach’s churches across Germany.