Germany dominates the classical music world when it comes to the sheer quality of its orchestras, according to an international panel of professional music critics. Five of the world’s greatest orchestras, as collectively ranked, are German, with the Berliner Philharmoniker leading the way as the world’s finest. The Leipzig Gewandhaus (4), Berlin Staatskapelle (6), Dresden Staatskapelle (8) and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (10) ensure German orchestras are incredibly well represented in the line-up.
Neil Fisher, Deputy Arts Editor of The Times, is clear about why the Berliner Philharmoniker stood out ahead of the rest: "The Berlin Philharmonic sets an international standard for its virtuosity and precision of ensemble. More than that, however, its players show a palpable hunger to go further; to test their audiences, their conductors – and themselves.
"While the level of interest this year shown in the election of the orchestra's new chief conductor highlighted divisions within the organisation – and the worse sides of an obscure management structure – it also demonstrated the uniqueness of an orchestra that under Simon Rattle's much-discussed stewardship has continued to fascinate the world's classical music critics and fans alike."
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, ranks second according to our panel, while the Vienna Philharmonic was a distant third place. Only one UK orchestra – the London Symphony (6) – makes the top ten, while the Chicago Symphony (5) and Boston Symphony (9) represent the USA. The highest ranking French orchestra was the Orchestre de Paris at no.28.
It's seven years since The Gramophone's comparable poll and two orchestras have risen sharply through the ranks. The Berlin Staatskapelle (which didn't rank in Gramophone's top twenty) and the Leipzig Gewandhaus (up from 17 to 4). Both these can be explained by the standing of their Chief Conductors, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Chailly.
Responding to today's news, Maestro Chailly said, in answer to the critics: “Thank you to all of them and my best greetings to everybody.” Talking about the qualities he has brought to the Gewandhaus and La Scala orchestras, he explained that he had tried to "respect their personality and bring back and restructure their history for which they left their mark on the history of music.”
"No concert or opera conducted by Riccardo Chailly is a familiar experience," explains Neil Fisher. "The Italian conductor has an astonishing ability to rethink, provoke and enthuse, and does it across a range of repertoire that probably no other conductor can match, from Puccini operas to Brahms serenades, via Bach passions and Kurtag miniatures. Chailly marries penetrating intellect with the spontaneous charisma of a born entertainer, and the results are consistently radical and refreshing."
Sir Simon Rattle, Principal Conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, was narrowly pipped to the top spot by Chailly. Rattle led his Berlin orchestra on an international tour at the start of the year in cycles of Sibelius symphonies, material largely unfamiliar to the orchestra, if not its conductor. In 2017, Rattle takes up the post of Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra and there have been a number of news stories surrounding his desire for London to have a new concert hall.
Kirill Petrenko, the surprise choice this summer in a vote by the Berliner Philharmoniker players to be their next Chief Conductor, comes in at No.7 in the critics’ top ten. Christian Thielemann, who didn’t get the Berlin Phil post, is ranked at No.10.
Appearing at No.4 is Andris Nelsons, who has just bid farewell to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and taken up his post with the Boston Symphony. Recent highlights have included a Mahler 8 at Tanglewood, Mahler 5 at the Lucerne Festival, and Mahler 6 with the Boston Symphony at the BBC Proms.
While there can be few quibbles about the conductors who made the top ten, I was surprised at one omission in particular. Semyon Bychkov has consistently impressed me in recent years, whether conducting the London Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic or even the BBC Symphony, but didn’t make anyone’s top ten. Perhaps because he does not hold a chief conductor post (and hasn’t done since leaving his post at the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln in 2010), he slipped under the critical radar.
What's your verdict? Did the critics get it right? Did your favourite orchestra and conductor appear in our Top Ten? For the next month, you have the opportunity to vote for your favourites, so click here (from midday 3 September) to have your say.
Bachtrack’s panel consisted of 16 critics across the world. Their nominations were submitted independently. They are:
Tim Ashley (The Guardian, UK), Lazaro Azar (Reforma, Mexico), Manuel Brug (Die Welt, Germany), Eleonore Büning (FAZ, Germany), Hugh Canning (The Sunday Times, UK), Arthur Dapieve (O Globo, Brazil), Manuel Drezner (El Espectador, Colombia), Harald Eggebrecht (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany), Neil Fisher (The Times, UK), Christian Merlin (Le Figaro, France), Martin Nyström (Dagens Nyheter, Sweden), Clive Paget (Limelight, Australia), Clément Rochefort (France Musique, France), Benjamin Rosado (El Mundo, Spain), Gonzalo Tello (El Comercio, Peru), Haruo Yamada (Japan)
Each critic nominated their top ten orchestras and conductors, with a points system awarding 10 to their top choice, down to 1 for their tenth.
Three North American critics abstained from voting on the basis they felt that had not seen enough of the world's top orchestras recently enough to cast their votes.