Which is the greatest orchestra in the world? Who is the greatest conductor? Everyone has their own ideas based on their different experiences, but what happens when you ask a panel of the world’s leading classical music critics? 

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus | Berliner Philharmoniker

Bachtrack did just that in 2015, a poll that provoked much discussion. Eight years and one pandemic later, we decided to repeat the exercise to see how the land lies. We asked 15 critics from 11 countries to nominate their top ten orchestras and conductors. Unlike last time, when some critics, particularly in North America, felt unable to participate due to not seeing many of the orchestral candidates live, the explosion in streaming has made it possible to watch performances from orchestras around the world at the click of a mouse. 

While the vast majority of the panel ranked their nominations from 1 to 10, some felt unable to go quite that far and offered two lists of ten candidates, which were then given equal weighting when we collated the results. Critics participated on the understanding that individual voting was kept private. It’s worth noting that The New York Times does not permit its critics to participate in external polls such as this. 

What qualifies as “greatness” when judging an orchestra or a conductor? We left the description deliberately vague, but asked a few of the panel for their criteria. 

“In making my choices, I tried to imagine which orchestras and conductors I would want to go hear without having any idea in advance what they were doing,” writes Alex Ross of The New Yorker. “In that respect, imaginative programming counts as much as purely musical excellence.” 

“Any symphony orchestra can call itself ‘great’. This is prescribed by the genre,” explains Dr Eleonore Büning (Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung), “but it can only become extraordinary if everyone listens to each other and breathes, thinks, feels, dreams and acts together. A symphony orchestra must develop swarm intelligence if it wants to find inner greatness.”

“A ‘great’ orchestra is more than a sum of technically outstanding musicians,” writes Walter Weidringer (Die Presse), “because it’s keen to maintain and uphold the traditions of its own collective personality of sound, possesses a smooth, homogenous tutti in any dynamics, the ability to adapt to different acoustics quickly, has strong personalities in key positions and, ideally, is proving this in a wide repertoire including opera, concert and chamber music as well.” 

Christian Merlin (Le Figaro) explained that his decision was based on “a complex mixture of many components: historical roots and modernity, collective power and individual talents, specific sound and adaptability, all this combined with rigorous consistency as well as an open-minded artistic policy.”

Has there been a monumental shift in the orchestral rankings? In short, no. The top-ranking orchestra, by a comfortable margin, remains the same: the Berlin Philharmonic

© Bachtrack Ltd

“It is both a technically and musically outstanding orchestra,” according to Weidringer, “probably the most ‘modern’ and versatile orchestra in the German speaking countries, very quick and eager to adapt to the ideas of different conductors.”

It was also the first major orchestra to run its own streaming service (founded in 2008) and its in-house record label is marketed as a luxury brand. The Digital Concert Hall ensures the Berlin Phil enjoys a major global presence, which can only have aided its chances in an international poll of critics when so much of its content is readily available online. 

“I love a symphony orchestra that pushes its limits dynamically, rhythmically and stylistically,” writes Büning, “an orchestra that has a broad repertoire and seeks to expand it beyond the Beethoven-Brahms-Bruckner routine; which tests, invents and savours sensations of tone colour, in which every instrument has soloistic qualities; an orchestra that remains recognisably true to itself, even when it changes. That's exactly what I appreciate about the Berliner Philharmoniker.”

Berlin Phil orchestra board members Eva-Maria Tomasi and Stefan Dohr responded: “On behalf of the Berliner Philharmoniker, we would like to express our sincere thanks for this award and dedicate it to the three orchestras whose patrons we are: the National Youth Orchestra of Germany, the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Their very different commitment forms the essential foundation for classical music now and in the future.”

The Berlin Philharmonic in the Philharmonie
© Stephan Rabold | Berliner Philharmoniker

Unsurprisingly, Central European orchestras fared strongly: the Berlin Philharmonic was one of three German orchestras in our top ten, joined by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (3rd) and Leipzig Gewandhaus (9th); the Budapest Festival Orchestra punched well above its weight at 8th; and the Vienna Philharmonic were the Berliners’ nearest challenger. 

“Not only is the Vienna Philharmonic an orchestra that was born as a result of the immense reception of Beethoven's symphonies in the Austrian capital,” writes Pablo Pablo Rodríguez (El País), “but it has evolved to the present day without losing its main characteristics and regardless of the prominence or influence of its conductors (in fact, since 1933 it has not had a chief conductor).” 

Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra came 4th in our poll, which also featured three American orchestras (Chicago Symphony, The Cleveland Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic). The London Symphony Orchestra was the only British orchestra to make the cut (7th). No period instrument orchestras made the top ten, although Les Siècles received three nominations. 

Sir Simon Rattle
© LSO | Mark Allan

But what about the stick-wavers standing in front of these orchestras? The list of top ten conductors in our new poll reflects the passing of time – Mariss Jansons died in 2019 – or changes in circumstances, such as frail health reducing Daniel Barenboim’s activity. When Riccardo Chailly topped the 2015 poll, he was Music Director of the Gewandhaus; now, he heads the Teatro alla Scala and has (just) fallen out of the top ten (11th). 

Sir Simon Rattle maintains his podium finish position, again coming 2nd, but it was his successor at the Berlin Phil, Kirill Petrenko, who has soared from 7th place in 2015 to top the 2023 poll. The Russian conductor was chosen by ten of our panel, with third place being his lowest ranking. Being tied to the top ranking orchestra will have helped, but Petrenko has consistently garnered ecstatic reviews. 

© Bachtrack Ltd

“He's a genius!” exclaims Merlin. “With him you have the feeling you hear for the first time pieces you were supposed to know by heart through and through.”

“Kirill Petrenko’s interpretations are driven by a distinct mix of historical knowledge, intellectual capacities and, last but not least, pure energy,” explains Weidringer. “His ability to make a complex and heavily instrumented score sound light, colourful and transparent is outstanding.” 

Herbert Blomstedt
© Winslow Townson | Boston Symphony Orchestra

Our top ten list contains a few “old lions” – Riccardo Muti (82) ranked seventh, while Herbert Blomstedt (96), much loved by orchestras and audiences (and critics), polled a remarkable 3rd place, possibly a sentimental vote. 

It may be surprising that such a high profile conductor as Yannick Nézet-Séguin (the Metropolitan Opera and Philadelphia Orchestra) didn’t poll higher than 8th, but Sir Antonio Pappano (The Royal Opera and Santa Cecilia, and soon to be chief at LSO) scored strongly to move into 4th place. Klaus Mäkelä (Oslo, Orchestre de Paris, and soon to be chief at the Concertgebouw) represents youth at 9th. Esa-Pekka Salonen, respected on both sides of the Atlantic, rose from 8th to 5th position. 

Klaus Mäkelä
© Agnieszka Biolik | Verbier Festival

No female conductor made the top ten, although seven were nominated by at least one critic. Susanna Mälkki (12th) and Joana Mallwitz (14th) were the closest to breaking into the top ten. Mallwitz, who recently signed a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, would be one of our tips – along with Mälkki and Karina Canellakis – to make the list if we were to repeat our poll again in a few years time. The classical music world is evolving, but change doesn’t happen overnight.

The Critics’ Choice panel: 

Dr Eleonore Büning (Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung et.al, Germany), Neil Fisher (The Times, UK), Arthur Kaptainis (Classical Voice, Canada), Joshua Kosman (San Francisco Chronicle, US), Fiona Maddocks (The Observer, UK), Serge Martin (Le Soir, Belgium), Alberto Mattioli (La Stampa, Italy), Peter McCallum (Sydney Morning Herald, Australia), Christian Merlin (Le Figaro, France), Guido van Oorschot (de Volkskrant, Netherlands), Pablo L. Rodríguez (El País, Spain), Alex Ross (The New Yorker, US), Mark Swed (LA Times, US), Markus Thiel (Merkur, Germany), Walter Weidringer (Die Presse, Austria)