Why Berlin Philharmonic is not orchestra of the year

Why Berlin Philharmonic is not orchestra of the year


norman lebrecht

June 11, 2022

Gramophone magazine has published what its critics consider to be the current 10 best orchestras, based on recordings submitted for review.

The shortlist reads:

Bayerisches Staatsorchester (Germany)

Budapest Festival Orchestra (Hungary)

Czech Philharmonic (Czech Republic)

The Hallé (UK)

Les Siècles (France)

Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Europe)

Oslo Philharmonic (Norway)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (USA)

Sinfonia of London (UK)

Vienna Philharmonic (Austria)

Missing are the 4 large London orchestras, the whole of American music except Pittsburgh, the Dutch, the Italians and the Russians.

But the biggest omission is the Berlin Phil which, as most objective ears can testify, plays consistently at a level seldom attained by most of the ensembles above.

So why has Gramophone blanked the Berlin Phil? Because Berlin no longer bothers with the record industry. It releases its own products and cannot always be bothered to send them to Gramophone for review.

Who’s the loser here?

not the Berlin Phil.


  • Iain says:

    Newspapers in particular seem to be addicted to these lists, possibly an attempt to counter falling circulation. The ten best ………….

    Pointless or, at worst, ill conceived.

  • Edoardo Saccenti says:

    It’s a joke?

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    The Halle & Sinfonia of London- ahead of the Berlin Phil & Cleveland. Somebody’s having a laugh or else the usual bias claptrap to anything British in the Gramophone.

    • Richard Bloesch says:

      I agree with Mark. Perhaps more readers should make their acquaintance with Fanfare magazine, whose critics review many recordings in every issue, and whose standards are very high.

  • Mary says:

    The aim of a magazine is to create buzz. You can’t name the Berlin Philharmonic every year, but if you named Sinfonia of London, a little known and little heard studio orchestra, then people will talk.

    Case in point: this post.
    Result: Gramophone’s marketing dept earned its keep for another day.

  • Dave says:

    Oh dear, are we going to have another orchestra calling itself “the world’s best” on the basis of some puffs by the self-appointed leading review magazine? It got rather tedious when the RCO kept doing it. I wish they’d all stop it with this “we name the best” stuff, whether it’s a band or a recording or the latest star 10-year-old triangle virtuoso.

  • Gustavo says:

    Random list. No Boston, no Gewandhaus, no BPO.


    Hoever, adding BPO based on sales would not be fair given John Williams’ “The Berlin Concert”.

  • Herbie G says:

    I guess it depends on what criteria the orchestra is judged. I have no time for ratings for the ‘best’ anything – singer, instrumentalist, orchestra or conductor. I cannot see how an orchestra’s quality depends on whether or not it sends CDs to Gramophone magazine. I gave up buying it years ago when it was sold off to a commercial company and re-invented as a comic.

    • Warrick Snowball says:

      I read The Gramophone magazine with great profit many years ago. As a result was able to ‘know’ which reviewers could be relied upon. That is if they agreed with me!!! I recall a wealth of knowledge and experience and am saddened to read of it’s decline.

  • Backrowbass says:

    This has always struck me as an exceptionally pointless award, with an arbitrary winner selected from an equally arbitrary shortlist.

  • Mathew Tucker says:

    4 London orchestras?? 5.

  • Brian says:

    So few American orchestras make recordings anymore that it’s not surprising that only Pittsburgh appears here. Still, I’ve heard some fine ones from Philadelphia, Minnesota, Boston, Seattle and L.A. in recent times.

    Of course, another barometer might be best live-streaming productions, not best recordings.

  • Mystic Chord says:

    I had the misfortune to see the Berlin Phil twice with Rattle – it was like pulling teeth on both occasions. Admittedly not with their more familiar repertoire but I will never forget how tedious and difficult to endure it was.

    • Jarred says:

      Yes, Rattle was truly terrible with his “improvisations” . Why people think he,s any good, I just don,t know.

  • Another orchestral musician says:

    I know that my next comment will be perhaps controversial, but here I go: as much as I love the Berlin Phil, I think that today’s music scene is so diverse and rich and at such a high level that it’s just silly to claim that there’s one and only orchestra that’s better than the others. Yeah maybe 50 years ago, but not in 2022. Each ensemble is unique and has different skills and strengths. By example, Radio France Philharmonic does a superior job playing Ravel or Debussy than Berlin ( just my opinion, feel free to disagree). And in fact, while I think that it’s also silly to make orchestral rankings it feels kind of refreshing to hear about other ensembles and orchestras doing a good job. The Oslo Philharmonic is brilliant. I haven’t listened to the Czech Philharmonic but I will check it out their performances. Don’t know much about Les Siècles but will read about them. The Budapest Festival Orchestra is still unknown to many people although they absolutely deserve all the recognition. So, in short, the Berlin Phil is not the one and only orchestra worth of accolades and stuff. They have plenty of them. (and of course they deserve them). So just let’s listen to other orchestras, shall we?

    • Ubirajara Favilli says:

      Acho que só é possível comparar duas ou mais orquestras, quando a diferença de nível é muito evidente, caso contrário acho bobagem preocupar-se com isso.

    • MacroV says:

      I love the Berlin Phil, but there are lots of terrific orchestras around. Basically any orchestra that pays a living wage (and sometimes not even that) is good. Then it comes down to what they do, rather than how they play.

  • John Kelly says:

    The Halle? Hmmmmmm…..

  • Branko Kobas says:

    Definetly this Gramophone’s list is not relevant, missing Berlin Philharmonic, main London’s orchestras, Concertgebow ……..

    • SunnyEd says:

      And not one of the major American orchestras, the Big 5, Met Opera, San Francisco, Dallas, LA all play at a consistently high level. Cincinnati and Detroit are also very good ensembles.


    As I understand it, the Sinfonia of London is made up of players from other UK orchestras, which is very obvious if you watch videos and know some of the players by sight. They come together on what seems an ad hoc basis, so strictly speaking the SoL is a pick-up band rather than a permanent orchestra (rather like the John Wilson Orchestra). Should they be on the list then? Just wondering, as these orchestra beauty contests are meaningless.

  • Micaelo Cassetti says:

    I am shocked by the omission of the Portsmouth Sinfonia.
    There is an excellent clip of them playing the end of the William Tell overture conducted, IIRC, by Signor Eyebrow.

  • Tom Phillips says:

    Except for Vienna, a fairly insane bunch of choices. No Concertgebouw, Berlin, Chicago, etc.? PITTSBURGH???????

    • Andres C. says:

      I see you have not heard the Pittsburgh Symphony in recent years. Several Grammys and nominations for Shostakovich, Beethoven and Dvorak Symphonies, all led by the brilliant and thoughtful Manfred Honeck, who is by and large the most sought-after conductor in the profession and a candidate for many other major posts.

    • Romu says:

      chicago??!! Jajaja

  • Ed says:


  • Alexander Hall says:

    Gramophone has been off piste for some time now. Some of the reviewers are informed and do a good job. However, there are now far too many pursuing their own personal agendas and writing quite weird and wacky reviews. All reviewing is subjective, but some critics adopt an ex cathedra approach as though they alone know which recordings can safely be dismissed, which can be promoted as the greatest ever and which artists the world should be jumping up and down about. Not bad for a publication, which as David Hurwitz revealed in one of his online videos, has fewer than 30,000 subscribers but regards itself as the voice of critical opinion.

  • Federico Bar says:

    I enjoy listening to music and watching the wonderful harmony of many orchestras. But I am not.a músician and therefore, I don’t know why the abovementioned ensembles are judged so much better than many others.
    Rather, I would like to learn – although I doubt anyone will teach me that – WHY one orchestra (other than those ten) performing on radio and television is considered to be BAD. If so, how can they spend so much time and money without someone noticing it?
    Thanks for this space.-

    • SunnyEd says:

      Rhythmic precision, blend and intonation are the primary reasons why one orchestra is ‘better’ than others. Berlin is insane, they’re a virtuoso ensemble, they play at the highest technical level possible. They also happen have the best flautist on the planet, the very best oboe, and my favorite clarinet player, Wenzel Fuchs, a phenomenal musician.

  • Peter. says:

    Sinfonia of London is a scratch band!
    Lists are spurious.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Such lists are always idiosyncratic, always subject to unknown biases, no matter what organization or individual compiles them. Even when untainted by commercial considerations, they are mere expressions of taste.

  • Harpist says:

    Have you heard Pittsburgh Symphony with Honeck. Its a revelation. Much better than most other other orchestras, including VPO and BSO. Their Mahler is spectacular and so is their Strauss.

    • John Kelly says:

      Yes, and their horn section is easily the best in the US and that’s saying something……………

    • R. Harth says:

      Many times, and with Honeck, but your better than (VPO…BSO…) is a real stretch. But I’ll give you that the PSO is approaching that level.

      Now then, most any 10 best list(stupid!) would be more accurate than this, and would likely include several American orchestras.

  • Duncan says:

    Not sure why Slipped Disc considers this newsworthy. The Gramophone list is just one of many similar lists compiled by magazines mainly to attract and draw comments from readers. It is just the ‘moment-in-time’ reactions of the reviewers and could easily change next week, let alone next year. Nobody claims it is a statement of fact – it’s just opinions.

  • SIMON CAPLAN says:

    Great to see the Halle up there, an excellent orchestra which in my opinion as a regular attendee at their concerts,is an accolade well deserved.

  • Rabengeraun says:

    It’s just a list of “trendy” orchestras – just as the CBSO was a trendy orchestra back in the days of Simon Rattle

  • Musician46572 says:

    This list is rubbish. They are all good orchestras, but there are many great orchestras out there. I really can’t understand on what grounds this list was made. And generally ranking orchestras is stupid idea considering they are all different and unique.

  • John says:

    Who cares? Lists like this are silly and prove nothing.

  • Nick2 says:

    I believe I am correct in saying these ‘awards’ are made on the basis of recommendations from Gramophone reviewers and then voted for by readers – i.e. anybody! Besides, is it not the case that there is no limit to the number of times one can vote? If correct, this explains why some rise to the top who perhaps would otherwise not be there.

    That said, I think lists like this one, apart from encouraging controversy, do in fact bring relatively unknown orchestras to much better – and often much deserved – attention. Examples include the Hong Kong Philharmonic for its orchestrally excellent Ring cycle under van Zweden and the Singapore Symphony.

  • grabenassel says:

    What is that supposed to be, “the best orchestra”? Who plays the fastest and the loudest? Or whose strings lift their bows the highest in the air after the final chord? Then the MCO is among the top favourites…..

  • Zandonai says:

    What’s next? 10 Worst Audiences that Applaud in Between Movements? My top nomination goes to Orange County, California.

  • Kman says:

    Worth noting that even if this list did include Berlin, London, and any of the other above-mentioned groups, there would still be this many comments discussing how terrible of a list it was.

  • JB says:

    This selection is based on CD output, as is clear from the grammophone website. So it just reflects the dire state of the recording industry.

  • Lothario Hunter says:

    Instead of criticizing this list and pointing out the imperfect choices that dissever us, let’s give Gramophone credit for establishing at least a few certainties, as indisputable as the truth that the sun rises on the East.

    An example: In the last decade and a half, Pittsburgh has been so much superior to Chicago, in every respect! Another example: Chicago does not belong on this list as long as they dedicate themselves to cover up the “happy hours” instead of acquiring a new MD!

    Hard facts, that even the riotous and turbulent SD readership can unanimously agree upon. :-)))

  • Peter Feltham says:

    Beauty Contests…….A bit childish don’t you think.

  • Fan says:

    So Berlin Phil. shall be Orchestra of the Year, every year? The problem with the ageing “classical music” audience is that you only need confirmation. It’s a monotheistic religion for you.

  • William J. McDonough says:

    I live in Va. But I go to see the Pittsburgh often. A fantastic orchestra. As good as any USA ensemble there is. Great and multiple award winner as well

  • Mock Mahler says:

    Orchestras are not sports teams. There doesn’t have to be a champion every year–or ever, for that matter.

    The proliferation of rankings is as irritating as the ubiquity of standing ovations.

  • James Norris says:

    Given that the Gramophone admits to a circulation of 17,000 copies there are a number of online audio magazines with over 600,000 subscribers and over 10 million hits a year worldwide. Who are the real leaders now?

  • MacroV says:

    I haven’t seen a single comment here pointing out that this seems to be a list of best (or most noteworthy) recordings; if they didn’t have a recording to review, you weren’t on the list. So judge it that way.

  • Charles Wiebe says:

    It is not surprising that the Pittsburgh is included. Their tours have received rave reviews all over Europe for decades. And their list of music directors over 126 years is unsurpassed: Honeck, Jansons, Maazel, Previn, Steinberg and Reiner.

    • Warrick Snowball says:

      You have a point. How often do we hear of a little known orchestra rising from nowhere because it has a great conductor?

  • Tamino says:

    The best orchestra of the world is usually the one I can hear for real live tonight.

  • Stéphane von Cron says:

    Les Siècles ? It’s unfathomable, especially if you have heard them. The incongruity of these lists speaks for itself!

  • Mike says:

    You said it yourself – read the qualification criteria. “”current 10 best orchestras, based on recordings submitted for review”
    Non story

  • Edward says:

    I have heard the BPO live in concert twice over the last 8 weeks and was underwhelmed. Lack of spirit, spark, a bit joyless professionalism. Even maestro Thielemann seemed not to get them really to shine. Odd, disappointing.