20 thoughts on the Top 20 conductors

This is the second in a series tentatively called “Erik responds to significant BBC-related items months after people stopped giving a shit.” The first, my take on the Havergal Brian “Gothic” Symphony, can be found here. There is a reason for the delay, however. If I were lying unremorsefully, I would say that it is because I embarked on a massive listening spree of the conductors on the list to better comprehend their respective legacies (in fact, this is somewhat true…I have been listening to the work of the conductors on the list lately, but I only decided to write this two hours ago, so it wasn’t part of some master plan or anything). If I were speaking truthfully, I would say that I spent major portions of the last month-and-a-half watching every episode of “The Wire,” which was one of the five best things I’ve done in 2011 (seriously, if you haven’t watched that show, it is without question the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on television and you should abandon all your obligations to watch it immediately……..after finishing reading this). For reference purposes, the list of the 20 greatest conductors can be found here.

  1. In a vacuum, I don’t have a problem with Carlos Kleiber at no. 1 (in a vacuum, everything sucks anyway, AMIRITE?!). He has several recordings that are widely praised, he was a gifted opera conductor, and that DVD of him rehearsing the Fledermaus overture makes me wish I was there playing the repetitive bullshit Strauss gives the horns just to experience the sheer charisma that Kleiber had in spades. But at the absolute apex of his career in the mid-70’s, his repertoire consisted of less than 10 operas and less than 50 orchestral works. It’s a tribute to him most of what he conducted was first-rate, but don’t you have to have more range than that to be considered the greatest of all-time? I respect the artist who understands his limitations, but no Tschaikovsky, no Sibelius, no Mahler (apart from a somewhat underwhelming Das Lied von der Erde), no Schumann…we can debate the merits of this music to our heart’s content, but that’s some of the stuff that legacies are judged by.
  2. I think Bernstein is the obvious choice for who should be no. 1. In some ways he was everything Kleiber wasn’t. Kleiber was a recluse, we couldn’t escape Bernstein; Kleiber had immaculate technique, Bernstein looked like a tool 85% of the time; Kleiber seemed genuinely humble, Bernstein seemed like kind of a dick. But Bernstein’s ability to communicate artistically to his colleagues is unsurpassed, and it’s hard to imagine anyone ever surpassing it. I wrote an entire post on this once, but I’ll reiterate here: Bernstein can take you places mere mortals cannot. He possessed the capacity for channeling emotion in ways that I can’t even begin to understand, sometimes to the music’s detriment. Go watch that DVD of him conducting the VPO in Mahler 7 for a perfect demonstration of Bernstein’s art. The first movement is flat-out rough, but things steadily improve, and the finale crushes everything in its path as if Godzilla and King Kong simultaneously impregnated a steamroller. And unlike Kleiber, Bernstein can be judged in almost every relevant corner of the orchestral repertoire.
  3. I’ve never been particularly fond of Claudio Abbado; I can only think of a single recording of his that I would label as a “my life is irrevocably better for having heard that” performance (the LSO Nevsky). Everything I’ve ever heard and read about him suggests that he is a wonderful man, and in a business full of egos that has to count for something, I guess. But Abbado’s conducting is like putting unsalted butter in your grits…later on that day the chances of you stopping at McDonald’s for their delightfully salty fries is greater than 70%.
  4. Many of my favorite Karajan experiences are thanks to the magic of DVDs, and some of them even have to do with music. There’s that really great rehearsal of Beethoven 5 from back in the day, and a performance filmed by a cameraman who very clearly had been watching nothing but Kung Fu movies for the two weeks immediately prior to shooting the concert. There’s the moment in one of those Sony Karajan collection performances (I wish I could remember which one!) where Karajan actually opens his eyes and reveals that they are the most terrifying crystalline things on God’s green earth. No. 4 is way too high for Karajan, whose recordings seem to be getting worse the further removed I am from them (I’m having the opposite effect with Lenny). Having said all of that, Karajan had two major things going for him: he was the most powerful musician ever (Berlin, Vienna, and Salzburg all at once is the musical equivalent of having a four-way with Jackie Kennedy, Cleopatra, and Oprah), and he had the best hands in the universe, equaled only by that one guy who made that statue of the naked dude that they keep in Italy. Karajan’s hands looked like they were moving through a nexus of molasses and human entrails.
  5. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a) incredibly nice, b) a saber-toothed tiger in the bedroom, or c) in possession of some very lurid photographs that would shock us in their shameful depravity. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is not a) the fifth-best conductor of all-time.
  6. Any list that has Simon Rattle above Furtwangler, Toscanini, and Boulez can only be about three things: famous Britons named Simon, Rattle family musicians, and hair restoration clinic success stories. If Simon Rattle is the 6th-greatest conductor in history, I will eat my hat. Full disclosure: my hat is made of Korean barbecue.
  7. Furtwangler seems strikingly low on this list, even though it’s still the top 10. I would have figured he would have been in one of the top 3 spots, easily. I never thought the day would come when Furtwangler would be underrated, but it’s officially here, so start canning foodstuffs and prepare the fallout shelters. Furtwangler was capable of producing earth-shattering music (his Schubert 9 is absurdly powerful), and yet he never let that ability overshadow the music (something Bernstein couldn’t do). Watch this video of Furtwangler conducting the Don Giovanni overture; holy shit. The first section is manifestly dark and intense, but that’s the sort of thing we’d expect him to be able to do. But the second section is so controlled, so precise, so energetic without being speedy. And that band sound ridiculously good. BUT I SAW HIM SHAKE HITLER’S HAND ONE TIME! Whatever feelings one may have about Furtwangler as it relates to the Nazis, that can’t obscure how supremely gifted he was on the podium. And on an unrelated note, in the movie Furtwangler will be played by the old grandfather guy from Everybody Loves Raymond.
  8. It’s hard to imagine someone being so ruthlessly charismatic as to be able to usurp any power whatsoever from Gustav Mahler, one of music’s all-time assholes (non anti-Semitic division), but Toscanini did it, and he eventually became the most popular conductor in America (I think you can argue pretty easily that he’s the most popular conductor on this or any other list). He’s got some clunkers in his legacy, most spectacularly his comically terrible Shostakovich 7, but he’s got some pretty amazing shit to counter that with, not the least of which is his Beethoven cycle. And if we were building a super conductor we would use Toscanini’s amazingly expressive eyes (and Karajan’s hands, and maybe some electric cables and some liquid nitrogen, but maybe I’m getting things crossed up here), best seen on that video of him conducting The Pines of Rome with an intensity that borders on uncomfortable.
  9. I wonder what Pierre Boulez circa 1956 would say about Pierre Boulez circa 2011 being on this list. It would almost surely involve the French word for “punk bitch” and questions about what happened to all that IRCAM money. But for 20th-century music’s most arrogant and outspoken “you just don’t get it” composer to become a renowned conductor widely admired for the biggest works of the late Romantic period is pretty astounding, like a person who believes vaccines can cause mental retardation being President of the United States. Oh God!
  10. Another of music’s nice guys, and the most Zen to boot. Supposedly there is a story about a Brahms 2 performance he did in Chicago in which he didn’t come out after intermission for half an hour or so because he was meditating and everybody was wondering what the hell was going on. And then he just came out and was like, “Oh, hey guys, why don’t we just go ahead and completely destroy this piece and alter the trajectory of everyone’s life in attendance tonight. Cool.” Giulini could get to that place where music moves from the beautiful to the sublime in a way that few others could and do it with such regularity.
  11. Someone told me a great story once about John Eliot Gardiner, and for the life of me I can’t remember it, which is a perfect description of his conducting. How in God’s name is he on this? By the way, if anyone has any great John Eliot Gardiner stories, let me know so I can see if it jogs my memory.
  12. John Barbirolli is supremely entertaining to watch. First of all, he looks like he accidentally bought a fencing sword instead of a baton for his first conducting engagement, but he was already at the hall and didn’t have time to return it and thought “just go with it” and ended up just going with it for 35 years. Secondly, he would occasionally spaz out and end up in some terrific positions. But most importantly, John Barbirolli had balls. He made some completely sketchy musical decisions, some of which were in almost total opposition to the score, but sometimes they worked, and the results were staggering (the most famous example being his Mahler 6 first movement that’s more pesante furioso than allegro energico). Barbirolli might be no. 1 on the all-time risk vs. reward list.
  13. Of all the under-the-radar conductors to end up on a top 20 list, I confess to being surprised that it ended up being Ferenc Fricsay and not, say, Kondrashin or Sanderling or Wand. Fricsay was phenomenal, though, so in some ways I’m glad that he made it, if for no other reason than the fact that I suspect a lot of people don’t know who he is. That 2-CD set of Great Conductors of the 20th Century has some very fine demonstrations of his abilities, including a wonderful Eroica. Also, in the movie, he’ll be played by the dad from That 70’s Show.
  14. George Szell created “The Cleveland Sound,” which, contrary to popular belief, isn’t the sound of profound misery and MJ over Craig Ehlo. That sound still exists to this day, even having passed through such diverse caretakers as Boulez, Maazel, Dohnanyi, and Welser-Most; that’s pretty impressive. Szell’s music-making can be pretty chilly sometimes, but he was the equal of anyone when it came to control over the orchestra (probably going too far, frankly) in all that entailed.
  15. I don’t know what it is about Bernard Haitink, but he seems to have the perfect balance of humility (too much of it can crush you under its weight; for a case in point, see Tennsted, Klaus) and confidence. I can’t honestly say that I would declare Haitink a go-to conductor in any repertoire, but his range is awfully wide and he continues to generate warmth everywhere he goes. And nobody ever handled that terrifying staircase in the Concertgebouw better than Bernie!
  16. Look, anyone who gets a 25-year contract with the London Symphony AT THE AGE OF EIGHTY-FUCKING-SIX ends up on this list. And words cannot even begin to describe how amazing this picture is. Next time you immediately label me an asshole for saying that Monteux looks like a human/walrus hybrid, remember that picture. Remember it.
  17. This is twelve spots too low for Mravinsky. Maybe there’s still some Soviet Union issues lying unresolved somewhere, but I think people are forgetting about how ridiculous the Leningrad Philharmonic was back in the day. I would have put that band up against any group in history; they were the autobots of music, and Mravinsky was Optimus Prime. Never has an orchestra so thoroughly dominated the repertoire of its homeland in quite the way they did, and that’s a tribute to their leader.
  18. Colin Davis just keeps on ticking; he’s still a terrific conductor. I’d take his Berlioz above anyone else.
  19. And that includes Thomas Beecham, who seemed like an entertaining guy in a lot of respects. What a treat it must have been to use your family’s money to stage operas at Covent Garden and introduce England to the majesty of Richard Strauss. But Jesus, Beecham loved Delius a little too much; I enjoy Delius as much as the next guy, but settle down, Tommy! Also, can I borrow $25,000?
  20. I’ll always think fondly of Mackerras because his was the first of the original Royal Fireworks recordings I ever heard. His late recordings with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are a pretty remarkable spin through some overdone repertoire and are well worth hearing. And for an Australian dude, he sure got Janacek in a way that other people just can’t seem to. I’m almost completely comfortable with him being the last guy on this list; he’s not one of the all-time legends, perhaps, but his reputation and legacy are awfully good if you sit back and think about it.

Bonus thought!

Who would I have included on this list instead? My own top 20 would look like this, I imagine:

  1. Leonard Bernstein
  2. Wilhelm Furtwangler
  3. Yevgeny Mravinsky
  4. Otmar Suitner
  5. Kiril Kondrashin
  6. Pierre Boulez
  7. Gunter Wand
  8. Jean Martinon
  9. Rafael Kubelik
  10. Takashi Asahina
  11. Carlos Kleiber
  12. Dmitri Mitropoulos
  13. Hermann Abendroth
  14. Colin Davis
  15. Herbert von Karajan
  16. Carlo Maria Giulini
  17. Michael Tilson Thomas
  18. Gianandrea Noseda
  19. Georg Solti
  20. Kurt Sanderling
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22 thoughts on “20 thoughts on the Top 20 conductors

  1. I like your list and ranking much better. The English perspective is readily apparent on the BBC list, c.f. Harnoncourt’s presence there, and the ridiculous placement of Kleiber. 30 years of Penguin Guide revews have had their effect. Good thoughts about Barbirolli, whose Mahler 6 is one of the most baffling performances ever, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. A good friend kept telling me how wrong it was compared to what the score indicated, and I kept saying, “yeah, but LISTEN!” After a while he put the score down. Kleiber recorded what I’d consider the finest Beethoven 7 ever, but exactly right, his rep was far too limited to rate such a high ranking. Mravinsky, yes. I’m a bit surprised that Reiner didn’t make the Gramophone cut, frankly. Or Solti, not that I’d put either of them on my list. Karajan is a problem for me, in that almost none of his recordings are my preferred interpretations, but there’s no denying his authority on the podium. Same with Szell, whose approach I find arid most of the time.

    One conductor who I think is fantastic who doesn’t get much love is Svetlanov, but he probably doesn’t belong on this list. Jean Martinon probably does, though his recorded legacy is too slender.

  2. Hey, good list, although personally I would drop Solti, Tilson Thomas, Karajan, and Colin Davis from the list. I would add back (in no particular order) Karel Ancerl, Karl Boehm, Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber-the old man, and Willem Mengelberg whose Malher’s 4th is the greatest ever. That’s 21, but who’s counting.

  3. Coupla followups: when I think “that Cleveland Sound,” I think of Pere Ubu. That’s just me. Tilson Thomas should stay. His Mahler is sublime and his Ives is probably the best we’ll hear for the next couple of decades. I just wish he’d recorded the whole symphony cycle with an American orchestra. Those Concertgebouw folks sound great, but they don’t quite get the style. I’m entirely in favor of favoring Kleiber ‘pere’ over Kleiber ‘fils’. Mengelberg and Walter oughta be in there somewhere (though Walter’s lack of contemporary rep really should disqualify him…), and what about Mitropoulos? Amazing Mahler, the best ‘Wozzeck’ and SO much more.

  4. @ Pete

    It’s interesting, because when I was looking over the BBC list, I found myself wondering if there was an inherent bias against the conductors of the early days of recording, because it seemed to me that the list was largely populated by people who made their name from the 60’s on. And then, of course, I did the same thing myself. Ancerl is a name I think I would definitely like to reconsider…he was a really terrific musician. I also found myself lumping Karl Bohm, Gunter Wand, and Eugen Jochum together because they are known for similar rep and had similar-ish careers…and I like Wand the most, so maybe that spot is reserved for all of them…?

    @ David

    I also enjoy Svetlanov, but in my mind I guess he suffers from any comparisons to Mravinsky (and to a much lesser extent Rozhdestvensky). He does have some really stellar recordings, though, including a very good Bloch disc with Schelomo and the Israel Symphony that is well worth getting. I’m generally lukewarm on Reiner, although if I could only take one recording of anything with me to a desert island, it might be his Mysterious Mountain with Chicago, which I love an uncomfortable amount. Solti, for me, benefits from DVD. I tremendously enjoy watching his jerky movements, and there are some pretty good results in there, especially in the late 70’s. I think his Mahler is good (not my favorite, but good), his Strauss quite good, his Bartok fantastic, and his Wagner appealing if not definitive. And carrying the Chicago connection, Martinon’s brief tenure was one of my favorite five-year stretches anywhere…his recordings with French bands are indeed too few, but I totally cheated and included a bunch of broadcasts from Chicago for him because I love those.

    MTT has to stay because of his Mahler, for me, which has really gone to the next level of late. And I agree about his Ives, which is first-rate. I went back and forth on Mitropoulos a lot, and have no real explanation as to why I left him off. I enjoy him very much.

  5. Walter’s lack of contemporary rep? Huh??

    You have to remember Walter (who was a composer himself) was a contemporary of Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, and Gustav Mahler.
    Walter premiered Mahler’s Ninth and Das Lied as well as operas of Pfitzner and Korngold. By the way, his Mahler 9th recording with VPO from 1938 is a milestone on the history of recorded music.

    Also, it was common for conductors like Mitropolous, Reiner, and others to program, what was at the time, compositions by living composers. Go check some of the programs Mitropolous did when he was in Minneapolis — with sold out crowds of 4000.

  6. @Pete: Point taken in re Walter. Still, I don’t think he embraced the new in the same way that Mitropoulos did, who took risks in programming that other conductors of his generation avoided. Your mention of his programming in MInneapolis underlines this. And which continued when he arrived in NY. (I once met a guy in Florida who had attended University of Minnesota back then primarily to attend Dmitri’s concerts, because it was the most adventurous orchestra in the country) Apart from Mahler, Walter’s recorded legacy is far more conservative, IMO. And, for whatever reason, I have always made a distinction between “living composers,” and “new music.” Mitropoulos conducted Webern when his music was barely known (especially in the USA). If Reiner or Walter did, I didn’t hear about it…

  7. Cool post, Erik.

    You know I’ve already talked about this topic a lot on my blog.

    The BBC Mag methodology was interesting- they asked a whole bunch of conductors for their top 3, then assembled a ranking based on number of mentions and individual. Most of those 3 person lists were as interesting and distinctive as the top 20 is lowest-common-denominator sketchy. Petrenko’s top 3 are proof positive he is completely insane…. Well worth checking out the whole feature in addition as a counterbalance to the list

  8. I think you are ranking Karajan far too low. He viscerally understood the music better than any other conductor, plus he was a tyrant that no doubt caused many musicians to wet themselves. And in a business of egos, that has to count for something, too. The other side of this coin is that it is virtually impossible to include conductors who were active prior to the 20th century and the advent of audio recording and film. An argument could be made that *every* conductor who died before audio and film came on to the scene was better than every conductor on either list. I wouldn’t buy that argument, but I couldn’t disprove it, either. Was Renata Tebaldi the greatest soprano of all time? The Callas people would disagree with that, but but I bet there are a whole lot of dead people from the 19th century who would scoff at the idea that either was the greatest. Just like all the Tebaldi and Callas people who scoff at Renee Fleming and Anna Netrebko. But again, in a world of egos and narcissism, looks have to count for something, too…

  9. Sorry these comments about kleiber being ranked too highly to his rep limitations Is rediculous. The reason carlos kleiber is number 1 is because though his rep is so limited, everyone one of his recordings is of such high quality artistry that no other conductor has ever achieved since. Though his rep was limited in size, it did cross eras from classical to modern. He just chose the rep he wanted to perform. The limited number of performance is caused by his extreme need for perfection. Until people start seeing music the way he did, we will keep having mass numbers of trashy performances

  10. Karajan will always be number 1. He made orchestra sounds like one instrument. For other conductors you have to listen in details and specific performances for quality of their work. No comparison to be made.
    Best and simple technique of conducting with no artificial movements or expressions.

  11. Kar-a-jan! Kar-a-jan! Kar-a-jan! Rene, you go girl!!!

    And let’s not leave out one of the better conductor jokes:

    A musician arrived at the pearly gates.

    “What did you do when you were alive?” asked St. Peter.

    “I was the principal trombone player of the London Symphony Orchestra”

    “Excellent! We have a vacancy in our celestial symphony orchestra for a trombonist.
    Why don’t you turn up at the next rehearsal.”

    So, when the time for the next rehearsal arrived our friend turned up with his
    heavenly trombone [sic]. As he took his seat God moved, in a mysterious
    way, to the podium and tapped his baton to bring the players to attention.
    Our friend turned to the angelic second trombonist (!) and whispered, “So,
    what’s God like as a conductor?”

    “Oh, he’s O.K. most of the time, but occasionally he thinks he’s Karajan.”

  12. Menuhin says in another site. Furtwangler, controlled fluidity in music, rather than trying to shape solid form, this was his greatness. Such a liquid flows into the soul, its not punctured by solid.

  13. A correction. Dimitris MITROPOULOS from Athens, Greece and later in USA, was, by many, the second most important conductor of the century after Bernstein if not equal. And it was him who showed Bernstein a lot and how to listen to Mahler.

  14. Sorry to be off-track a bit, but I don’t think there’s really ANY list of conductors 1 to 20. Not that all are great or that there are no conductors that shouldn’t be on there – of course there are a whole heap who shouldn’t make it.

    But then I listen to Bernstein’s Shostakovitch 5 and am devastated, then Mravinsky and I’m enlightened. Who’s better? Impossible for me to say. They are from different universes and they understand things in the music which, in great music, exist without any logical correlation and things all of which no one conductor can bring out – certainly not in one performance, maybe not ever.

    Similarly it seems lots of you guys aren’t exactly Toscanini groupies but he could make music sing like, I feel, no other. Not only his Beethoven, but his Wagner absolutely soars – the Rhine Journey absolutely enthralls me, I’ve never heard a more intense sunrise in music. Yet at the other end of the spectrum Furtwangler causes music to glow transcendentally in an entirely different way.

    Music defies logic. There is no either/or, greater-than/less-than, this way/that way. A great work has so much that it takes at least 20 great interpreters to reveal its treasures..

    So for me, it’s not even good enough to say, “Well, I can’t rank conductors 1 to 20 but this one is strongest in late Romantic, that one when it comes to revealing the inner tension in Beethoven, another one for getting as close as you can to understanding the real Stravinsky”. I have to say “this great conductor brings this wonderful aspect of a certain piece whilst some other shows me a whole new world in the same work”.

    Although I would put Toscanini, Reiner, Ormandy (for his Shostakovitch and Sibelius) on the list..

    Sorry for being no help at all.

  15. Oops sorry, also Hans Rosbaud.

  16. Vaccination does cause autism. Go and get some information before you shoot your mouth off about things you know nothing about. Apart from that a great article and a much better list than the rubbish the mainstream are calling great conductors. I however rate Furtwangler as the number one and really in a class of his own well beyond any other I have heard, though I am no expert by any means.

  17. While there’s always room for debate in any type of ranking like this, the glaring absence of Klemperer on either list stands out. His magnificent Mahler No. 2 from the early 1960’s is certainly one of the greatest performances of that work. While he may been considered, like Szell, as somewhat zealous in control, I would think a top tier ranking would not be inappropriate for him.

  18. Boot five names immediately (Rattle, Gardiner, Harnoncourt, Mackerras, and Boulez) and substitute with Wand, Celibidache, Kubelik, Scherchen, Rosbaud. Bonus dump of Beecham elevates Kempe.

  19. One thing that is becoming apparent as this conversation has evolved is that German (and Germanic) composers absolutely ruled the middle 19th to the middle 20th century, just as Russian composers ruled the same period on that side of the coin. There has to be an interesting study in there, somewhere.

  20. Sorry, that should have been “…German (and Germanic)” *conductors*.

  21. No doubt. I would point out that America has a pretty good claim to the ’30’s and ’40’s compositionally as well.

  22. The top 20 conductors and no Otto Klemperer, or Bruno Walter? What the *** were they thinking?

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