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.

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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.

Recommended recording:

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 (1890 version)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
BR Klassik 900165 80:07 mins

Read our review here.

Berlin Philharmonic

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.

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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.

Recommended recording:

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.

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Founded in 1881, the Boston Symphony is the second-oldest of the five major American symphony orchestras commonly referred to as the 'Big Five' (the others, in case you're wondering, being New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland).

Past music directors have included Serge Koussevitzky, Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg and James Levine. Another great conductor who enjoyed strong links with Boston was Bernard Haitink, who served as principal guest conductor BSO from 1995 to 2004, and subsequently conductor emeritus until his death in 2021.

The talented Andris Nelsons is the current incumbent at Boston. Among other things, Nelsons and Boston have some first-rate renditions of the Shostakovich symphonies under their belts.

Recommended recording:

Shostakovich: Symphonies 5, 8 & 9 et al
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
DG 479 5201

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.

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.

Recommended recording:

Brahms: Symphony No. 4
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
Channel Classics CCS SA 35315 (hybrid CD/SACD)

Read our review here.

Chamber Orchestra of Europe

Established in 1981, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is the youngest orchestra in our list. It was formed by former members of the European Community Youth Orchestra, who had surpassed the ECYO's age limit but wanted to continue playing together. It's based in London, tho0ugh in reality it has links across Europe. Its 60 members, for example, are drawn from right across the continent.

Over its 40-year history to date, the COE has forged links with a variety of illustrious conductors and performers, including Claudio Abbado and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. With the latter, the orchestra recorded a groundbreaking cycle of the Beethoven symphonies.

Performers to have recorded with the COE include Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Emanuel Ax, Lisa Batiashvili, Joshua Bell, brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, Radu Lupu, Maria João Pires and Sir András Schiff.

Recommended recording:

Mozart: Piano Concertos 25 & 27
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Piotr Anderszewski (piano)
Warner Classics 9029572422

' The Chamber Orchestra of Europe’s woodwind perform like the stars they are.' Read our review here.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The Chicago band has had some big characters to lead it over the years. Perhaps the best known, and one of the longest-serving, was the legendary Georg Solti, who led the Chicago forces for over two decades from 1969 to 1991. During this time, the Second City's orchestra gained global renown – not least for its incredible brass section, containing such huge talents as principal trumpeter Adolph 'Bud' Herseth.

Under Solti's tenure and that of his successor Daniel Barenboim, the Chicago Symphony produced some much-admired recordings, including authoritative cycles of the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler.

Recommended recording:

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 'Babi Yar'
Alexey Tikhomirov, Men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus/Dustin Wolfe, Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
CSO Resound CSOR 901 1901

Read our review here.

Cleveland Orchestra

The Cleveland Orchestra really hit its stride under the famously exacting conductor George Szell, who served as the orchestra's music director for nearly a quarter of a century from 1946 to 1970.

When Szell arrived in Cleveland, the orchestra was well respected but small in size and – like so many others – struggling to find its feet after World War II.

Over the next 24 years, the no-nonsense Szell transformed the Cleveland band into perhaps the world's best-disciplined orchestra. A later music director, Christoph von Dohnanyi, continued to maintain Szell's high standards and today, under Dohnanyi's successor Franz Welser-Möst, that fine tradition is still upheld. Cleveland has, in fact, been remearkable for its stability - it's still onto only its fourth music director since Szell took up the reins in 1946.

Recommended recording:

A New Century: works by Beethoven, Prokofiev, Strauss et al
Paul Jacobs (organ); The Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst (Cleveland Orchestra)
Cleveland Orchestra TCO0001

Read our review here.

Czech Philharmonic

The Cezch Phil has long been loved for, apart from many other virtues, the distinctive quality of its woodwinds, which have always had a prominent, Central European tang to them.

Originally the orchestra of the Prague National Theatre, the Cezch Phil played its first concert under its current name on January 4, 1896. The great composer Antonín Dvořák conducted his own compositions that evening. A little later, in 1908, Gustav Mahler conducted the world premiere of his Symphony No. 7.

Václav Talich was the orchestra's first great principal conductor, leading the Czech Phil to great exploits from 1919 to 1931, and again from 1933 to 1941. The subsequent rollcall of chief conductors is illustrious (and decidedly Czech), including Rafael Kubelík (1942-1948), Karel Ančerl (1950-1968), Václav Neumann (196801989), and Jiří Bělohlávek (1990-1992). The latter achieved, among other things, a wonderful cycle of the symphonies of the great 20th-century Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů – as well as, of course, some brilliant Dvořák recordings.

The current man at the top is Semyon Bychkov, who has recently extended his tenure in Prague.

Recommended recording:

Mahler: Symphony No. 4
Czech Philharmonic / Semyon Bychkov
Pentatone PTC 5186 972

Read our review here.

Dresden Staatskapelle

Plenty of orchestras have rich and storied histories: however, the Dresden Staatskapelle fares better than most here. Founded in 1548, it is one of the world's oldest and most highly regarded orchestras. Its precursor ensemble was Die Kurfürstlich-Sächsische und Königlich-Polnische Kapelle (The Electoral Saxon and Royal Polish Orchestra). The orchestra is the musical body of the Staatsoper Dresden (Dresden State Opera).

The Dresden band has been closely associated with several major composers. In the nineteenth century, Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner both served as its chief conductor, or Hofkapellmeister. Then, in the 1900s, Richard Strauss served as both conductor of and composer for the Staatskapelle, with several of his works getting premieres in Dresden.

Later still, the Staatskapelle became known for its characterful brass sound, heard to great effect in the Bruckner symphonies cycle recorded in the 1970s under conductor Eugen Jochum.

Recommended recording:

Bruckner: the Symphonies
Staatskapelle Dresden/Eugen Jochum
Warner Classics

Hallé

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.

Read our reviews of the latest Hallé Orchestra recordings here

Recommended recording:

Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos 4 & 6
Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
Hallé HLL 7547

Read our review here.

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.

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.

Recommended recording:

Strauss: Vier letzte Lieder and Other Lieder
Jessye Norman (soprano), Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Masur
Philips 4758507

Read our review here.

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.

Recommended recording:

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Barbara Hannigan (soprano); London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO 3028

Read our review here.

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 nothing 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.

Recommended recording:

Lutosławski: The Symphonies
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Sony Classical 88765440832

Read our review here.

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

North America's largest classical music organisation, the New York-based Metropolitan Opera (0r 'Met') comprises a symphony orchestra, a chorus, children's choir, and many supporting and leading solo singers. The Met's repertoire ranges widely, from 18th-century Baroque and 19th-century bel canto to modern works. The Met's own in-house orchestra is a huge part of the opera house's global renown: a world-class ensemble with its own concert series at Carnegie Hall.

Recommended recording:

Verdi: Luisa Miller
Millo, Domingo, Chernov, Quivar, Plishka, Rootering, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/James Levine
Sony 88875194772

Read our review here.

New York Philharmonic

America's oldest orchestra, the New York Phil remains one of its most prestigious and revered ensembles. The roll call of past NY music directors is hugely impressive, including Gustav Mahler, Willem Mengelberg, Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Pierre Boulez and – perhaps most famously – the great Leonard Bernstein.

best orchestras in the world - Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic
Leonard Bernstein, the New York Philharmonic's legendary conductor and figurehead

The hugely charismatic conductor, composer and music educator took the helm for 11 hugely successful years from 1958 onwards. As well as some wonderful series introducing young people to classical music and the orchestra, the results included one of the very first and most-respected cycles of the Mahler symphonies. Indeed, Bernstein and the '60s NY Phil can take much of the credit for the vast surge of interest in the great, but previously little performed composer.

Recommended recording:

Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7
New York Philharmonic / Jaap van Zweden
Decca Gold 4816856

'A triumph, to be listened to especially by anyone who feels they don’t have an urgent need to listen to these works again.'

Read our review here.

NHK Symphony Orchestra

The Nihon Hōsō Kyōkai (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) Symphony Orchestra, to give it its full name, is approaching its first centenary, having started life as the New Symphony Orchestra on October 5, 1926. Japan's first professional symphony orchestra, it later became the Japan Symphony Orchestra and then took its current name in 1951, after the nation's broadcaster stepped in to provide financial support.

Conductors to have held roles at the NHK Orchestra in the past include Vladimir Ashkenazy, Charles Dutoit, Wolfgang Sawallisch (an honorary conductor from 1967 to 1994), and Herbert Blomstedt, who has served as honorary conductor since 1986 The orchestra's current chief conductor is Fabio Luisi.

Recommended recording:

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben / Don Juan
NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo/ Paavo Järvi
RCO 88985391762

'Of the generalisations trotted out about Japanese playing, those about fine-tuning and focus turn out to be absolutely true; the one about lack of emotion completely false.' Read our review here.

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.

Recommended recording:

Verdi's Aida
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

Read our review here.

Philadelphia Orchestra

Like Cleveland under Szell and Chicago under Solti, the Philadelphia Orchestra is another top-drawer unit whose rise to success can be attributed at least in part to one great conductor. In this case, it's the great Eugene Ormandy (interestingly, like Szell, Solti and many other great conductors, of Hungarian parentage).

Under Ormandy's extraordinary 44-year tenure from 1936 to 1980, the Philadelphians earned a reputation for an incredible smoothness of tone: a plush, well-upholstered sound that's heard to great effect in landmark recording achievements such as their Tchaikovsky symphony cycle, for many the best such cycle on offer. In particular, the luscious string tone coming out of 'Philly' was often singled out for praise.

The orchestra is currently enjoying another purple patch under the directorship of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Recommended recording:

Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1 / Symphonic Dances
Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
DG 483 9839

Read our review here.

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.

Recommended recording:

Mahler: Symphony No. 1
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
Accentus Music ACC 20335 62:24 mins

Read our review here.

Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The SSO is (by a whisker) the second youngest orchestra on our list, having been founded as recently as 1978. Among its notable features are its principal concert venue, the sinuous and futuristic Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

The SSO has already made a healthy number of recordings with labels including BIS Records. Its catalogue includes the first recording of the complete cycle of Alexander Tcherepnin's six piano concertos and four symphonies on BIS. There was also a much-praised 2007 recording of Debussy's La Mer. Here's our guide to Debussy's La Mer.

Recommended recording:

Shostakovich: Jazz & Variety
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
BIS BIS-2472 (CD/SACD)

Read our review here.

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.

Recommended recording:

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
Decca 4663692

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Please note this list is in alphabetical order.

Authors

Oliver CondyFormer Editor, BBC Music Magazine

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.