The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the three most acclaimed orchestras in America at the end of the century (the others being the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra), and one of the few serious rivals that the New York Philharmonic has had in its long history. Curiously, the histories of the two orchestras are somewhat intermingled.
Theodore Thomas had organized and led orchestras in New York during the 1870s and 1880s, competing with the Philharmonic Society of New York for audiences, soloists, and American premieres of works. His orchestra did very well as a major rival to the orchestra that would become the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra had visited Chicago for a number of seasons, and it was intended that he would be music director of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in that city. In 1891, however, he abandoned New York entirely in favor of Chicago, and arrived as the first conductor of what was then called the Chicago Orchestra. Thomas held that position until his death in 1905. In his honor, the Chicago Orchestra was renamed the Theodore Thomas Orchestra in 1906. Six years later, the orchestra was renamed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
It was under the leadership of Thomas' assistant, Frederick Stock, that the Chicago Symphony's modern reputation was formed. From 1905 until his death in 1942, Stock led the orchestra in decades of programs that featured not only the established classics but the American premieres of many post-romantic works. Additionally, Stock raised the level of performing and the financial status of his players, and established the orchestra in a major teaching role for aspiring musicians in its home city. Their recordings were relatively few in number, because the long-playing record -- central to the appreciation of classical music -- had not yet been invented, which means there is little evidence by which modern listeners can judge the work of the orchestra during this period, but some of the recordings from that era were among the best in the world at the time. Among the few available from the period on major labels are the Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 as performed by Arthur Schnabel, with Stock conducting, on BMG.
Stock's death in 1942 precipitated a difficult decade for the orchestra. Apart from the general complications of World War II, they had a great deal of trouble finding acceptable leadership. Desire Defauw lasted for only four years, from 1943 until 1947, and Artur Rodzinski (best known for his leadership of the New York Philharmonic) was in the job for only one year, 1947 and 1948. Youthful, Czech-born Rafael Kubelik served three years as music director from 1950 until 1953, but his gentlemanly manner and decidedly modern, European-centered taste in music proved unsuited to the players, critics and management -- although it was under Kubelik that the orchestra made its first successful modern recordings, for the Mercury label, many of which are finally being reissued in the mid-1990s.
Finally, in 1953, Fritz Reiner became the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Thus began the modern renaissance and blossoming of the orchestra. Under Reiner, the orchestra's playing sharpened and tightened, achieving a clean, precise, yet rich sound that made it one of the most popular orchestras in the United States. The Chicago Symphony under Reiner became established once and for all as an international-level orchestra of the first order, rivaling the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony.
Moreover, Reiner's arrival with the orchestra coincided with its move to RCA Victor Records, which, in 1954, was beginning to experiment with stereo recording. With Reiner as conductor, these "Living Stereo" recordings -- characterized by vivid textures, sharp stereo separation, and microphone placement that gave the impact of a live performance -- became some of the best-selling classical albums of all time, and have since been reissued numerous times on compact disc to new acclaim from critics and listeners, more than a generation removed from their original era.
Reiner's death in 1963 led to another interregnum period, during which the French conductor Jean Martinon led the orchestra (1963-68). Finally, in 1969, Sir Georg Solti joined the orchestra as its music director. Under Solti, the orchestra's national and international reputations soared, as did their record sales. Reiner had begun the process of cultivating the burgeoning audience for late romantic composers such as Mahler, but it was with Solti that the works of Mahler and Bruckner became standard fare in the orchestra's programs, right alongside those of Beethoven and Mozart. The playing standard achieved during Solti's tenure, in concert and on record, was the highest in the history of the orchestra. Additionally, the orchestra under Solti began a quarter-century relationship with London Records that resulted some of the best-sounding recordings of their era.
Solti's approach to performance is very flamboyant yet intensely serious -- even his performances of lighter opera and concert overtures strike a perfect balance between broad gestures and finely wrought detail, attributes that have made him perhaps the most admired conductor of a major American orchestra, if not the most famous (Leonard Bernstein in New York inevitably got more headlines, especially with his knack for publicity, during the 1960s). He is both popular and respected, and his tenure with the Chicago Symphony coincided with his becoming the winner of the greatest number of Grammy Awards of any musician in history, in any field, although Solti has also recorded with orchestras in London and Vienna.
Currently, the orchestra's music director is Daniel Barenboim, with Solti remaining in the post of music director emeritus. As with other major American orchestras, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has found itself in recent years competing with its own history, especially where recordings are concerned. The compact disc reissues of their work under Reiner and Solti continue to sell well, and are comparable or superior to Chicago's current recordings in sound and interpretive detail. Even their early 1950s work under Rafael Kubelik has been reissued by Mercury Records in the late 1990s, while RCA-BMG and some specialty collector's labels have re-released the Chicago recordings under Frederick Stock. The success of the Reiner and Solti recordings has created a problem for the current Chicago Symphony, even as sales of their classic recordings flourish. ~ Bruce Eder
Note: The recordings of Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are uniformly excellent, and can virtually all be recommended. The same goes for the Chicago recordings with Fritz Reiner, although there are highlights to be considered, listed below.
Bartok Concerto for Orchestra RCA/BMG 
Music for Strings, Percussion & Celeste 
Debussy La Mer RCA/BMG 
Mahler Symphony No. 4 RCA/BMG 
Strauss Ein Heldenleben RCA/BMG 
Also Sprach Zarathustra RCA/BMG 
Mussorgsky Pictures At An Exhibition Mercury 
Smetana My Fatherland Mercury , Rovi