The story of the National Philharmonic Orchestra began in 1923, with the formation of the Metropolitan Orchestra, which rapidly became one of the pillars of Hungarian musical life. It was founded by Dezső Bor who was its chief conductor for fifteen years. After the war, Ferenc Fricsay and László Somogyi were appointed as principal conductors. During this era, Otto Klemperer also conducted forty concerts, while another regular guest was Antál Doráti.
These years saw a host of foreign guests working with the orchestra. 1952 proved to be a turning point in the orchestra's history when János Ferencsik was appointed principal conductor: it proved to be a match made in heaven. In the 1960's, a new wave of guest conductors took up invitations to conduct the musicians and their names read like a Who's Who of the profession: Ernest Ansermet, Antál Doráti, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Sir John Barbirolli, Leopold Stokowski, Claudio Abbado and Christoph von Dohnányi. Great soloists were invited too, musicians of the calibre of Sviatoslav Richter, Yehudi Menuhin, Anja Silja, János Starker and Ruggiero Ricci.
With János Ferencsik's death, an entire era in the orchestra's history closed. In 1987, an ideal replacement for Ferencsik was found, in the person of the Japanese conductor Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi. Kobayashi enjoyed immense popularity in Hungary and he directed the orchestra for ten years. The next major change for the orchestra occurred in 1998 when it was renamed the Hungarian National Philharmonic and together with the Hungarian National Choir, was nominated as supreme national basic institutions.
There were also major changes in the orchestra's artistic leadership. Since the autumn of 1997, the general music director has been Zoltán Kocsis, who appointed one of the most talented of the younger generation of Hungarian conductors, Zsolt Hamar, as resident conductor. Hamar remained with the orchestra until June 2004. From April 2004 until the end of 2006, the supreme clarinettist and conductor, Kálmán Berkes, was the ensemble's permanent guest conductor.
In the past few years, the orchestra has received a remarkable number of invitations to perform abroad. It has enjoyed immense successes at venues as far apart as the New York Avery Fisher Hall, the Tokyo Suntory Hall, the Birmingham Symphony Hall, the Athenean Megaron Musicos and the Colmar Festival. ConcertoNet, the distinguished internet serious music journal, nominated the orchestra's concert in New York in February 2003 as the winner of the Lully Prize for the finest concert of the season.
In Spring 2003, the orchestra released its first CD featuring Zoltán Kocsis as a conductor. This recording of Debussy and Ravel (some in Kocsis's own transcription) was the first major release since the Ferencsik era and was critically acclaimed. It won the "Record of the Year Award" of Hungarian Gramophone magazine, and the international jury members of the Cannes Midem Classical Awards judged it "The best Hungarian classical record of the year." In February 2004, three new CDs were released: the first containing three Bartók compositions - Dance Suite, Concerto and Hungarian Peasant Songs. The editor of the American ClassicsToday.com and also the jury president at Midem wrote "There is no finer performance of the Dance Suite." The recording of Concerto received no less impressive praise: "You won't find any competing version more viscerally exciting while at the same time faithful to both the letter and the spirit of Bartók's score." The other two CDs are a selection of live performances drawn from the orchestra's 2001-2002 series: the first presents Dohnányi, Debussy (in Kocsis's orchestration) and Rachmaninov, the second a work each by Schoenberg and Varese.
The orchestra, together with the National Choir and the National Music Library, moved into its new home, the Palace of Arts, in early 2005. The orchestra gave the first ever concert in the new hall on January 8th, 2005. A live recording of the two Mozart G minor symphonies performed at this concert was released by BMC and had a great critical acclaim in Hungary and abroad.
The ensemble is undertaking an active role, under the artistic direction of Zoltán Kocsis, in the complete Bartók recording project for the Hungaroton label, launched in 2006. The first recordings from this new series were released in December 2006: the Kossuth Symphony and The Wooden Prince. This SACD had an important international critical acclaim (Diapason d'or, Pizzicato Supersonic Prize etc.). The second one has been released in September 2007 with a new recording of the Violin Concerto op. posth. and earlier recordings of Rhapsody op. 1 and Scherzo op. 2.
On the 1st of December 2006,the Hungarian National Philharmonic was appointed Hungarian Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF by its Hungarian National Committee.