England's Philharmonia is a relative youngster among orchestras, having arisen out of the ashes of London's disrupted orchestral life in the wake of World War II. Within an astonishingly short time, it rose to a high level of quality with a deep, burnished tone similar to the best Austrian-German ensembles. Not surprisingly, its formative years were nurtured under the batons of Furtwängler, Karajan, and Klemperer. In 1945, EMI's Walter Legge realized a long-standing ambition to create a British recording orchestra chiefly for recording purposes that would rival the best Continental models. The Philharmonia was to be a flexible, democratic organization. With a rebuff to the offer from Thomas Beecham to helm the impressive new ensemble, Legge set out to attract the best conductors and soloists on the international scene. Concerts were added as well, and among the most outstanding events of the early years were a Beethoven concerto cycle with pianist Artur Schnabel as soloist, a recording of Ravel's Concerto in G major with a young Leonard Bernstein as pianist, and concerts under the batons of composers Walton, Richard Strauss, and Hindemith. The basis for the Philharmonia's sonorous quality was undoubtedly laid by the procurement of Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. The great traditions of Berlin and Vienna were absorbed into the English ensemble. But with the death of Furtwängler in 1954, Karajan ascended to directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic and consequently minimized his ties with the Philharmonia. Legge then made the happy decision to approach Otto Klemperer, one of the last German conductors with 19th century roots, bringing a mutually happy result for both parties.
Concerts were sold out and scores of worthy recordings -- particularly of Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler -- are found and revered on CD to this day. Meanwhile, in 1964, Legge, convinced that he could not maintain the Philharmonia as he wished, expressed his intent to disband the ensemble. The players, with the encouragement of Klemperer, immediately responded by re-forming and renaming as New Philharmonia Orchestra. They continued to flourish, a high point being an invitation from West Germany to perform at Bonn for the Beethoven Bicentennial. With Klemperer's passing in 1973, the orchestra was helmed by American Lorin Maazel and subsequently, Italian Riccardo Muti, who expanded upon the largely classic Austro-German repertoire to embrace a wider international and modern palette. In 1977, the "Philharmonia" reverted to its original name. In 1984, Giuseppe Sinopoli continued the tradition, along with numerous associate conductors. A noteworthy accomplishment was the first digital recording of Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 1-9 under Kurt Sanderling in 1981. In 1997, Christoph von Dohnányi assumed chief conductorship, continuing the catholicity of repertoire of his predecessors. The Philharmonia has also thrived as a film orchestra, its credits including Henry V, The Far Pavilions, and Nicholas and Alexandra. The orchestra maintained residences in New York in 2002 and 2003.