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.
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.
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…