By request- Top 20 Conductor/Orchestra collaborations of All Time

Erik K has suggested we compile a list of the top orchestra/conductor collaborations of all time. This list is the result of literally minutes of careful contemplation in the car yesterday on my way to work. I’m hoping some of you brave souls will offer your own lists via the woefully underused “comments” function (or use your own blogs)! Do you have a Top 20 or Top 5? Do you think I’ve got some undeserving characters on here? Somebody I missed out? Want to know why I left off so and so with such and such? Make your voices heard!

1- Berlin Philharmonic/Furtwangler

2- Berlin  Philharmonic/Karajan

Controversial, yes, and not without shortcomings, but Karajan’s achievements are looking bigger and bigger with each passing decade. It now looks like we’ll never see a pairing so dominate world musical culture again. There hasn’t been an orchestral sound to compare with theirs since his departure shortly before his death.

3- Vienna Philharmonic/Bernstein

The VPO don’t have music directors, but their partnership with Lenny was special- orchestra and conductor brought out the very best in each other through this long-running collaboration in a huge range of repertoire.

4- NBC Symphony/Toscanini

It would probably have broken the old man’s heart to know that the highlight of his last years would be his recordings of Respighi and Verdi- his real love was Wagner and Beethoven. Never a very colorful or flexible combination, and Toscanini had some strange and distracting mannerisms as an interpreter. Still, when has an orchestra ever played with more precision, or carried fewer passengers? Their Forza del Destino film is a remarkable document of what a string section sounds like when not a single player is faking a single note- when does that ever happen?

5- Concertgebouw Orchestra/Haitink

They played with more precision and attention to detail than the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan. The great Schumann orchestra of their day. Balance, culture, color, nuance- a collaboration for musically sophisticated listeners.

6- Leningrad Philharmonic/Mravinsky

One of the greatest and most enduring partnerships of conductor and orchestra.  Together, they could achieve a shattering intensity in a huge range of repertoire, but their performances of core Russian repertoire from Tchaikovsky to Shostakovich remain unmatched in their ferocity.

7- Budapest Festival Orchestra/Fischer

An orchestra of world-class virtuosi that rehearses with the kind of attention to detail and care of process we normally associate with a youth orchestra. Fischer and BFO have re-invented the culture of the modern orchestra, empowering players to take an active role in maintaining standards and developing the sound of the ensemble.

8- Osaka Philharmonic/Asahina

Takashi Asahina also had spectacular results with the NHK Symphony- possibly the better orchestra- but the collaboration between him and the Osaka Phil over 54 years was a transcendent one. In all their recordings I’ve heard, the orchestra plays with a stunning level of intensity and commitment

9- Philadelphia Orchestra/Stokowski

They found a sound that people are still talking about 60 years later. Ever Philadelphia music director since has found himself working in Stoki’s shadow. Yes, he was a ridiculously willful interpreter, yes he re-wrote things, but he also did more contemporary music than any other conductor of his generation. But, most of all, that sound….

10- NDR- Wand

In the 1990’s, this was probably the mightiest combination on Earth. ‘Nuff said.

11- The Hallé/ Barbirolli

Vanquished early in his career from an unhappy collaboration with the New York Philharmonic, John Barbirolli had a spectacular run at the Hallé, creating a vital orchestral culture for Manchester and the North of England.

12- Chicago Symphony/Solti

Sure the brass played too loud for him, and the strings didn’t always make the most beautiful sound, and maybe he wasn’t the most poetic soul. However, I don’t think this conductor/orchestra combination ever gave a boring performance. Every CSO/Solti concert, throughout his long tenure, was an event.

13- Bavarian Radio Symphony/Eugen Jochum

Jochum remains one of the most under-rated conductors of the 20th c.. His recordings with a number orchestras, especially the Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouw and Dresden Staatskapelle are outstanding, but his collaboration with Bavarians was the heart of his long professional life.

14- Royal Philharmonic/Thomas Beecham

Need an orchestra- just start one. The great British tradition of “family money” orchestras begins with Beecham, who, unlike some of his well-heeled successors in the field, deserved the orchestra he bought for himself. A sophisticated musician, he could be as moving in Haydn and Gounod as lesser conductors were in Mahler and Strauss.

15- Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell

I’m about to duck as I admit that Szell is not always my favorite interpreter, but the Cleveland Orchestra still embodies the sound and Tonkultur they discovered under his leadership 36 years after his death.

16- Philadelphia Orchestra/Ormandy

Poor old Eugene Ormandy- never a darling of the critics. He had big shoes to fill in Philly, and if he never quite managed to make the world forget Stoki, he had that orchestra playing extraordinarily well right up to his retirement. Critical snipes about interpretation aside- if this combination showed up at the Proms today, I think the world would shake with awe to hear that kind of playing again.

17- Boston Symphony Orchestra/Koussevitsky

My grand-teacher was an enigma. He was a slow learner of scores and could be maddeningly self-contradictory on the podium,  but he commissioned and brought to life a big chunk of the best of 20th c. music. An incredible ear for color.

18- Philharmonia/Karajan

A lot of record collector types think Karajan did his best work with the Philharmonia. He and Walter Legge built one of the great orchestras of the world from scratch in almost no time.

19- Boston Symphony/ Munch

This is one of 3 repeats of an orchestra on this list among consecutive MD’s. These days, searches tend to focus almost exclusively on the weaknesses of the outgoing conductor- orchestras almost unfailingly hire the opposite of the last MD. This means the strengths of the orchestra are often immediately obliterated, and musical identities that may have been developed over 20 years obscured or erased. It wasn’t always so- I wish more boards would look at the strengths of their ensemble in a time of change and look for a conductor who can build on those. Munch was a virtuoso conductor with an un-matched technique where Koussevitsky was all mojo and no technique at all. He’s the Ayrton Senna of conductors, and his BSO the ultimate Formula 1 car of orchestras.

20- Berlin Staatskapelle/Suitner

I feared for my own life if I didn’t include this one- I just wish I had more of the recordings…


Just too early to tell after so few years and so few concerts. His work with Berlin also probably merits consideration for the list.



My favorite Haitink partnership. Too short lived to merit final consideration



My favorite LSO/conductor partnership. Love the Dvorak recordings


Kubelik/Bavarian Radio Symphony

A rather legendary (especially with critics and collectors) collaboration. I’m put off by the scrappy technical standards of their Mahler cycle- lots of ropey, icky playing. The Dvorak Tone Poems set is also sloppy and scrappy. Great interpretations need to be realized to a great technical standard. My favorite Kubelik is his Dvorak cycle with Berlin.

Giulini/LA Phil

I’ve rarely known an orchestra that so loved a conductor as LA did Giulini

Boulez/New York, Boulez BBC Symphony, Boulez Ensemble Intercontemporain, Boulez Vienna, Boulez Cleveland, Boulez Chicago

I’m sure one of these should be at least one of these on the list…

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American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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17 comments on “By request- Top 20 Conductor/Orchestra collaborations of All Time”

  1. Matthew

    I’d add James Levine and the Met Orchestra. My inner 12-year-old boy would add John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra—by far their best film work has been under Williams.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Matthew

    I was going to put the Met/Levine on the list, but I thought I should stick to symphony orchestras rather than opera bands, but that seems like an un-neccessary distinction…

  3. Daniel Wolf

    What about Carlos Kleiber with both the Concertgebouw and the Vienna?

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hello Daniel- great to hear from you.

    Carlos Kleiber was the king, no question. If he’d ever really taken a job, I think he might have pushed Furtwangler from the top spot. Of course, Lenny never really had a job with Vienna, but I think he did a lot more there than Kleiber did. Still, I’d have no problem with either of those, or with Kleiber/Bavarian Radio Symph, one of his favorite orchestras.

  5. Jim Drummond

    Hi Ken. I think I would have to include Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra! Being a fan of their cycle of Shostakovich symphonies, I think they deserve inclusion for those recordings alone! His Prokofiev and Rachmaninov output with that band is particularly very fine too!

  6. Kenneth Woods

    I can’t argue with you, Jim. Kondrashin was a stud- I love his stuff. Svetlanov and the USSR Symphony were also pretty combustable in Russian repertoire.

  7. Daniel Wolf


    one other possibility: Ferenc Fricsay and the RIAS-Symphonie-Orchester.

  8. Erik K

    Great list, Ken. Agree with previous commenter on Kondrashin/Moscow PO. Their Mahler is no joke, either…really exciting performances. I’ll continue to dispense as much Suitner as possible…in fact, perhaps his Mahler 5 would be in order with your upcoming performance on the horizon.

    Only other combo I think belongs on this list, and awfully close to the top, IMO, is the Chicago Symphony under Jean Martinon. Take that gaudy Chicago sound of the 1970’s and mix in the refinement of Martinon…winner. I don’t have a ton of their stuff, but Mahler 3 and Mahler 10, Bartok Concerto for Orchestra and Bluebeard’s Castle, and Death and Transfiguration are all really, really something. I had no idea who bridged the gap between Reiner and Solti in Chi-town, but I wish more people did, because I actually enjoy that vintage more than the 2 famous partnerships.

    A few other notable ones that leap to mind are Abravanel/Utah SO, Gibson/Scottish National Orchestra, Neumann/Czech PO, and something involving Klaus Tennstedt (London PO?).

    Very fun to think about. I’m gonna listen to some Suitner later!

  9. Michael M

    Glad to see Karajan up there. The attacks on him of the last 20 year have been childish, unwarranted and motivated by generational fads and ankle biting.

    A reassessment of his accomplishment and a revival of his reputation is due.

    I cannot disagree with your list, though I might have changed the order a bit.

  10. Kenneth Woods


    I’m a huge Friscay fan, although I’m not sure the RIAS was as good an orchestra as he was a musician. Still, I’d put him up there.

    Erik’s suggestion of Neuman/Czech Phil is one I mulled for quite a while. My colleague at the RCICW, Chis Zimmerman, was a Neuman protege- I’ll see if I can get him to talk about that here one day. I don’t know Martinon’s work well at all- the Midwestern press where I grew up tried to eradicate his tenure for history. Very Sad. Tennstedt- very, very special communicative artist.

    I’d still love to get more debate going here. If there’s anyone left out there who wants to put in their 10 cents, please do so!

  11. Jeff Rosenfeld

    Interesting and reasonable list (which I only stumbled onto today). I would propose a few changes, but mostly I will blather on about this and that alternative because it’s a fascinating subject. I tend to give more weight to flexibility and virtuosity among the range of important repertoire than you do.

    Any consideration of the Concertgebouw Orchestra starts with Mengelberg, a trail-blazing partnership with distinctive coloring, as evinced by some priceless documents of conductor-orchestra synergy, like their Franck and Mahler. It is nearly impossible to get everyone on the same page like that, in interpretations that are as beautifully flowing but intricately nuanced. They have to be a top five choice. I also think the Van Beinum years had more fire and incisiveness and color than the Haitink years. Haitink inherited a great orchestra and over his tenure it lost some of its distinctiveness, if only a little–in a way Haitink is to Amsterdam as Ormandy was to Philadelphia. For the same reason I would rank Stoki/Philadelphia closer to the top–they never cease to astonish. If you think Ormandy/Philadelphia (who I heard many times) would rock the Proms today, imagine what Stokowski/Philadelphia would do.

    Similarly, for the Czech Philharmonic, I think the pinnacle was the Ancerl partnership. What fire! What color! And what flexibility! Few conductors were so convincing and distinctive in modern works as well as romantic warhorses. Neumann was quite good (and underrated generally) but not the genius that Ancerl was. Going further back, one can see Talich’s formative relationship with the Czech Philharmonic as even more important to that nation’s orchestral culture, but in general the playing seems to hit a high note with Sejna and then Ancerl.

    Personally I count the Bernstein/NY partnership higher than his work in Vienna–as beautiful as the playing could be in those later DG recordings, many of them are so singularly focused on beauty and sloooow tempi that they don’t show quite the range of expression the more youthful Bernstein got from his NY orchestra. The NYPO then (and now) literally could turn on a dime, in a much wider repertoire than Bernstein ever tried in Vienna. It’s a choice of youth and experimentation versus maturity and refinement (and experimentation, or was it merely exaggeration?). Also, whenever I think of Bernstein/Vienna I think of that other guest conductor who just a few years later made even more ravishing sounds and polished interpretations in Vienna–Giulini.

    I am not as big a fan of Asahina’s recordings as you, or at least not a big fan of his orchestra, much as they surprise people unaware of how well Japanese can play. Those documents (in relatively limited repertoire) were all about Asahina, who did build a very fine deep-voiced orchestra. The argument for Fricsay/RIASBerlin is just as strong. On the other hand, in a somewhat similar repertoire, but perhaps a better orchestra, should we forget the unique Klemperer/Philharmonia legacy simply because Asahina is still the more exotic and obscure choice?

    Toscanini/NBC is an indisputable landmark partnership, but I can’t help but noting that his few recordings in New York show an even more electric combination of a conductor and a top-notch orchestra. The NBC legacy benefits simply by having a greater number of listenable recordings. Similarly Beecham did great things with the RPO, but his work with the London Phil is arguably more important to defining the English style.

    Much as I like Suitner, I don’t think his orchestra outshines Sanderling’s in East Berlin, or Konwitschny’s in Leipzig.

    I am puzzled, though, that Reiner/CSO didn’t make the list. This was a very good match, just as Szell/Cleveland were. To rank the Reiner years below the Solti years flies in the face of a lot of opinions from old-timers in Chicago, which is fine with me. I’m not old enough to have heard Reiner live (but his live recordings are indeed simply stunning and quite a different perspective than his relatively straight-laced studio persona, just as Szell was often more “human” live than in the studio).

    Ultimately I would downgrade Furtwangler’s Berlin partnership somewhat because BP wasn’t well suited for a large range of repertoire. What they did, they did amazingly and uniquely, but I couldn’t rank them above, say, Mravinsky/Leningrad, which, based on the few recordings we have, was equally incendiary and supple in Weber, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Sibelius, Hindemith, and even Bruckner, not to mention the full range of Russian and Soviet composers. Both are limited legacies, but the Mravinsky/Leningrad is an order of magnitude more refined than WF/BP in terms of virtuosity and flexibility. They weren’t just good at Russian music. This should count for a lot.

    For those who love contemporary music, no partnership was ever more influential than Rosbaud/SWF Baden-Baden. People snicker because they were a budget-label operation in terms of Mahler and Bruckner (but with incredible expression and not as many bad notes as people seem to think). Of course, Rosbaud was a first rate conductor in a huge range of repertoire, but what strikes me as unique about his Baden-Baden orchestra is that they made beautiful music out of the most avant-garde stuff, not just in Mozart or Beethoven. Their performances of Carter’s Variations or Berg’s 3 Pieces achieve real eloquence, not just precision, and that is what orchestras should be all about. In this regard Rosbaud seems without peer and his orchestra had the chops to support him in a path-breaking endeavor.

    No matter what you think of Sergiu Celibidache, he found a receptive home with the Munich Philharmonic, and they were as one together, making distinctive sounds and penetrating (if at times bizarre) interpretations. I tend to like his Italian recordings even more, because the interpretations are less “transcendently” single-minded. But hearing the Munich orchestra live was a thrill because the sound was so physically palpable and polished. I have trouble leaving that partnership off this list and would happily bump Halle/Barbirolli (at their best, they were highly persuasive, but as the BBC discs show, in concert they could be pretty erratic) or Budapest/Fischer (only recently have their recordings strayed from Hungarian/Central European repertoire and they are often not as distinctive as Kocsis’s Hungarian National Philharmonic) or Bernstein/Vienna.

    If there was a “mighty” combination in the 90s for Beethoven/Bruckner/Brahms, Wand/NDR might have been it. But they did too little beyond a few of the “B” composers. For that decade my money might be on Dohnanyi/Cleveland or Chailly/Concertgebouw, who were even more astonishingly polished and burnished but who both ventured into far more repertoire with great virtuosity. Both of these partnerships get a bum rap because people hear their recordings and think they were interpretively cautious–the concerts recordings show something beyond the astonishing polish. To me, Wand/NDR had its transcendent high-points but is analogous to Dutoit/Montreal, who in the 90s both built distinctive legacies of balance and perfection in a specific repertoire. (The unspoken example of Ansermet/Suisse Romande hangs in a dark corner of this analogy–perhaps they showed their weaknesses a few too many times, but few partnerships were as distinctive and utterly “right” in a particular repertoire). If Wand/NDR is a highlight because of their Bruckner etc., then we should consider Desormiere or Inghelbrecht and their uniquely vivid performances with French orchestras.


  12. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Jeff-

    What a great and thoughtful comment! There’s a lot to digest here- possibly fodder for a follow-up blog post. We’ll see!


  13. Albert

    What about Antal Dorati with either the Minneapolis or Concergebouw Orchestras? They made excellent recordings of Tchaikovsky’s ballets.

    For thae matter, Ernest Ansermet and L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande did a beautiful “Nutcracker” in the late 1950’s. They also made great Debussy recordings.

    I would also include Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony.

  14. Brad Wilson

    Get to know the Martinon recordings with the CSO! The Nielsen is startling, the Hindemith/Varese/Bartok disc an all-time keeper. His EMI recordings of Debussy and Ravel, now on 2-fer CDs, are some of the best ever, esp. in Debussy. His own music, which he recorded in Chicago, is worth hearing too. Claudia Cassidy was an evil harpy to chase him away!

  15. Derek

    Speaking of Abbado, I really like some of his Chicago recordings. Listening to him today, I’m surprised Barenboim beat him out for the job, his work as guest conductor there was really great. He really reined in and refined the brash Solti-Chicago sound into something interesting. It was a good combination, but Berlin didn’t actually need his refinement because they are such a polished ensemble to begin with.

    Also if you’re disappointed with Kubelik’s Mahler, Audite remastered some live tapes that are better played and recorded than the studio versions. (You might already know this though, it’s been 2 years since the last posted comment here). There best one is DLVDE with Janet Baker and Waldemar Kmentt, it wasn’t in his original survey and this one could be the best I’ve heard.

  16. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Derek

    Thanks for the comment.

    In fact, I listed that Kubelik DLvdE in BBC Music Magazine as a sort of must-have recording of the piece. Maybe the best full orchestra version (although the tenor is only just okay). Glad we agree!

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