Monday, March 28, 2011

My Top 20 Conductors (Edited and Totally Complete)

The BBC List:

1. Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) Austrian
2. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) American
3. Claudio Abbado (b1933) Italian
4. Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) Austrian
5. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (b1929) Austrian
6. Sir Simon Rattle (b 1955) British
7. Wilhelm Furtwängler (1896-1954)
8. Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) Italian
9. Pierre Boulez (b1925) French
10. Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) Italian
11. Sir John Eliot Gardiner (b1943) British
12. Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) British
13. Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963) Hungarian
14. George Szell (1897-1970) Hungarian
15. Bernard Haitink (b1929) Dutch
16. Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) French
17. Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988) Russian
18. Sir Colin Davis (b1927) British
19. Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) British
20. Sir Charles Mackerras (1925-2010) Australian

Apparently 100 conductors were asked to vote for three conductors to comprise this list. Now that the votes are tabulated, what amazes is how conventional the resulting list is. The only real surprise isthe presence of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, but I would imagine that the conductors who were polled were mostly British, so perhaps that explains his presence. Otherwise this list is, to my thinking, a very good approximation of contemporary tastes. Carlos Kleiber and Abbado are now the great models for young conductors. Leonard Bernstein’s influence is still felt palpably, while the influence of Furtwangler, Karajan and Toscanini is waning. When I first looked at it I was a little shocked to see Harnoncourt listed so high. Yet after thinking about it I don’t think it’s that big a shock, Harnoncourt and Boulez have shown alternative ways of approaching musicianship of which none had previously thought. That both attracted so many followers who viewed them as models would all but guarantee a high presence on this list for both of them.

But the moment I saw the BBC list of 20 conductors on Kenneth Woods’s blog along with the beginnings of his alternative 20, I knew I had to make a list of my own. I know most people hate lists. But I admit I like them, and I especially like reading the lists of others'. People have preferences, and even if it's a little ridiculous to say that you prefer apples to oranges, it still gives a great window into the mind of the person who makes the list. If that doesn't sound apologetic enough, I should mention that I was already kind of embarrassed by how conductor-centric this blog has become since I gave up Voices of Washington. But I love conducting, and I miss being able to do it more than once a week. We all need our fixes somehow.

In creating a list like this, the first question must be, what are the true criteria by which one judges a conductor? The orchestra’s they’ve built? The pieces they’ve premiered? The quality of their Beethoven and Mahler? But after thinking about it I realized, there is only one way to rank musicians that’s fair. And that is based purely on how much more one thinks of music as a more joyful, fascinating, enriched artform because of the contributions. This list will based purely on the conductors whom I think have made music a greater activity for everyone with whose lives they’ve touched.

For better or worse, this means that there will be no Toscanini or Karajan, because for all the greatness I find in Toscanini’s Verdi and Karajan’s Sibelius, I can’t think of two conductors who did more to place classical music in a constricting straightjacket of standardized repertoire and interpretations. From them originated the airbrushed ‘cult of perfection’ from which classical music has yet to emerge. Nor will there be Furtwangler or Mravinsky. For all the greatness of Furtwangler’s Bruckner and Mravinsky’s Shostakovich, I these two conductors are as much to blame as anyone for a musical culture that is unrelentingly serious and has an avid distrust of anything fun. The maestros you see below will be based purely on their musical curiosity, the pathos of their performances, the excitement they generate, their dissatisfaction with tradition, and their willingness to take the kind of foolhardy risks on interpretation and repertoire that less brave maestros would never countenance. So...without further ado....

1. Rafael Kubelik (1994-1996 Czech): In my strong opinion, no conductor has ever brought greater joy to their musicmaking.The unaffected musicality and humanity he brought to every bar of his performances is without parallel in the entire history of the podium. In terms of repertoire he was fearless, taking on everything from pre-Bach to the latest commissions, and he brought the same unerring musical sense to it all. His performances had all the rhythmic flexibility (and excitement) of a great gymnast, and yet he seems to be one of the only musicians in history to get away with every risk he takes -- a feat which must take great discipline. In his day, he was beloved but condescended to as the ‘great conductor of Czech music.’ Such a moniker doesn’t begin to cover his strengths. In my strong opinion he is still the greatest of all Mahler conductors, and equally at home in Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Schumann, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Schoenberg, Hindemith and Hartmann. He was a fearless champion of new music and a respectable conductor of Baroque repertoire. On top of it all, it helped that he was a profoundly wonderful human being who was apparently loved by everyone who worked with him. Would his results have been possible otherwise?

(Blanik, by Smetana)

2. Leonard Bernstein (American, 1918-1990): Even his mistakes seem right. Yes, Lenny was incredibly over-the-top in everything he did, yet (to me at least) it was never in the service of self-aggrandizement. His seemingly perverse mannerisms were entirely in the service of enhancing the music he played. And frankly, they often sound superior to what’s written on the page. In everything he did, Bernstein gravitated to extremes. His Mahler is both faster and slower than everybody else’s. His Stravinsky is louder and softer than everyone’s. But his main accomplishment as a conductor was mostly in his final years when he toured every major world capital and made so many countries realize that the world had awoken to the greatness of their national composers. Everybody knows that he gave Mahler to the Viennese, but how many remember how he gave Nielsen to the Danes? Who remembers his (extremely idiomatic) performances of Latin music in Latin America? Who remembers the French performances of Berlioz or the Hungarian ones of Bartok (to say nothing of his famous performance of Shostakovich in Moscow or his tireless championing of American composers)? Along with the Young People’s Concerts, this is Bernstein’s great legacy as a conductor. We are still feeling the heatwaves of his intensity today, and no matter what else he was, he was firstly musicmad. He loved and played music of every stripe, and he wanted others to love it too. There was nothing he would not do in pursuit of that goal. In a time when American orchestras are beginning to wonder if they can survive in today’s economy, we miss him now more than ever.

(Shostakovich 6)

3. Dimitri Mitropoulos (Greek, 1896-1961) For risktaking, both musically and personally, there was no braver conductor -- and he paid a dear price for the risks he took. There’s a famous story about how John Cage and Morton Feldman met each other because they both left a Mitropoulos concert after a Webern piece because Rachmaninov was next. To be equally accepting of two so very different composers is remarkable even in 2011. But in the 1950’s it was nearly unheard of. There was no conductor willing to try repertoire further afield and none with less dogmatic discrimination in what he chose to play. But equally risky were his performances. There was no conductor more willing to take risks with impossibly fast tempos, no conductor more willing to push dynamic extremes to the limits, no conductor with less vanity about encouraging ugly sounds. He could draw absolutely beautiful sounds as well, and that combined with his great willingness to bend phrases (never too much), means that the results are invariably both musical and individualized. The result is, in my opinion, the most viscerally exciting musician to ever pick up a baton.

(from Berg's Wozzeck)

4. Neeme Jarvi (yeah, that’s right, Neeme Jarvi, Estonian, 1937-) - Let’s get real here. Among living conductors, we can all say that we admire Pierre Boulez’s ear for detail, or Bernard Haitink unerring sense of structure, or Claudio Abbado’s impeccable elegance or Daniel Barenboim’s Furtwanglerian sense of elastic phrase. But whom among living conductors gives the most joyful, most vital and uplifting, most educational concerts? For me, the answer is simple. Neeme Jarvi is the living the conductor with the most curiosity, the most elan, the most excitement and the most musicality. Any Jarvi program sticks out in an orchestra calendar like a sore thumb. All the other guests are performing the same Beethoven and Tchaikovsky while Jarvi’s performing Stenhammer and Taneyev. There is nothing he won’t try, either in repertoire or interpretation. If it doesn’t always work, who cares? At least he’s willing to take the risks and try all those things other conductors wouldn’t dare touch. For Jarvi, every performance is a new experiment, with new discoveries to be made. If there were any justice in the world, he’d be the most famous, powerful conductor in the world and not just the guy you call when Maazel or Muti gets sick.

(Zdenek Fibich's Symphony no 2...)

5. Charles Munch (French, 1886-1967) - Admit it, you’d take the seat-of-the-pants excitement of Charles Munch’s recordings over the military precision of Reiner and Szell any day of the week. Munch’s musicmaking is everything there is to love about music personified: ardor, intelligence, pathos and above all else, fun. He championed plenty of new and under-rated music in his day and he began his career as Furtwangler’s concertmaster in Leipzig, which probably accounts for his near-equal comfort in German repertoire to his performances of everything else. It would seem that he learned everything about how to wring maximum expression from a piece from Furtwangler without retaining Furtwangler’s staid seriousness. Other conductors inspire admiration, Munch inspires love. Eventually, every music lover is a Munchkin.

(Saint-Saens's Organ Symphony. Munch is the only way I can listen...)

6. Sir Simon Rattle (English, 1955-) - In recent years, Simon Rattle-bashing became a bloodsport. It’s all too easy to rag on him - Rattle was appointed to direct the Berlin Philharmonic with a mandate to modernize it, and is now continuously attacked for having been so successful at the task he was given. It’s almost enough to make one forget that before he came to Berlin, he’d already accomplished things that eluded generations of musicians before him. He is, in every sense, a musical omnivore who devours composers, musical eras, interpretive traditions and programming ideas and synthesizes them all with an interpretive personality that is truly unique. Rattle’s music-making sounds like no-one else’s, and because of that he will never be to everyone’s taste. But like Bernstein a generation ago, interpretations that strike today’s music-lovers as grotesque may seem canonical in twenty years.

(Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand with an orchestra of high school students)

7. Leopold Stokowski (Polish-English, 1882-1977) Stoki’s stock is due for a resurgence. Showmanship like his has never been needed more direly, and Stokowski was never a mere showman. He was a musical giant who gave more world premieres than any other modern conductor, championed far more unknown composers than any modern conductor, and was less dogmatic in the music he chose to perform. No conductor was more willing to expermiment. The results sometimes seemed perverse, but they were never boring. And when they didn’t seem perverse, there were true revelations aplenty. It’s a given that no one has ever approached Stokowski’s ability to draw a great sound from orchestra was unmatched, but far less commented upon is his ability to draw a singing line. Few conductors, if any could make a beautiful melody sound more beautiful than Stokowski did.

(Debussy, conducted by Stokowski in his 90's)

8. Pierre Monteux (French, 1875-1964) I find myself amazed that I didn’t put Monteux higher than this. Don’t ever be fooled by Monteux’s understated manner. This is a conductor who made music with consummate imagination. If Munch was the great dramatist of the French school, Monteux was its great poet. Perhaps still more than Munch, he was a universalist comfortable in every corner of the repertoire. But what truly distinguishes Monteux is his unique ability to retain elegance without ever diluting the excitement of the music he directs. Whether it’s Petrushka, the Franck Symphony, La Mer or the Enigma Variations, Monteux shapes the piece in manners that other conductors would never think to do. He may never look as engaged as Leonard Bernstein, but his performances never gave the sense that he was anything but engaged by everything he directed.

(Monteux rehearses The Rite of Spring.)

9. Michael Tilson Thomas (American, 1944-) MTT is, more than Jimmy Levine, the great living American conductor. If Koussevitzky helped to birth American classical music, and Leonard Bernstein helped it come of age, MTT has helped more than any other to establish an American musical canon. But his championing of American music is but a symptom of the qualities that makes MTT one of the greatest conductors of all time (and I would argue with anyone who disagrees with that statement). It’s the very flamboyance so many have decried (in barely concealed homophobic language) that propels the greatness of his musicmaking. His willingness to create living drama out of music is what makes his performances come alive so consistently. There is no set routine for MTT. Only a series of adventures and deeply personal interpretations that have both made the San Francisco Symphony the most inspiring orchestra in America and have made us think of music again as something that can reach people outside the classical ghetto.

(Carl Ruggles: Men and Mountains)

10. Antal Dorati (Hungarian, 1906-1988) No, it’s not too high for Dorati. It’s probably been twenty years since anybody seriously listened to a Dorati recording, and that’s truly a shame. Go back to them, his performances were far warmer, more characterful, and more delicate than anybody remembers. The popular image of Dorati is of a violently tempermental Hungarian who obtained singularly violent-sounding performances. To be sure, Dorati was a volatile man whose performances have immense fierceness and drama, but also a surprisingly generous level of lyricism in a huge array of music from Haydn to Tchaikovsky to Copland (and so many things between). He was in many ways the overlooked Hungarian in an era that also had Reiner, Szell, Ormandy and Georg Solti. But as often happens, perhaps his comparitive neglect spurred him to greater musicianship than any of the others in that group. It’s true, his work has all the same regimented precision of the others, but he also has more subtlety than any of the others. Sometimes far more.

(Dorati's synthesis of Porgy and Bess)

11. Serge Koussevitzky (Russian, 1874-1951) Koussy is another conductor whose strengths are now far too overlooked. He was, to say the least, an indifferent technician. But nobody should care about technique when a musician inspires such commitment from his players. Few conductors were ever able to elicit as much drama from the process making music, still fewer had a better sense of the give and take a melody requries. A 19th century Russian Romantic by both training and temperament, he took to the music of his two adopted homelands -- France, then America -- like a fish to water, doing more to champion native composers than most native-born conductors ever did. He is, in so many ways, the patron saint of American music. And without him, we’d have had neither the Boston Symphony as we know it, or many of the masterpieces by composers from Aaron Copland to Prokofiev to Roy Harris to Bartok to Bernstein to Stravinsky to Martinu to Britten and Messiean.

(Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet)

12. Willem Mengelberg (Dutch, 1871-1951) To anyone whom Mengelberg seems too willful to be a great conductor, please just listen to the unique sound of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Even today, the unique sound of the orchestra is his achievement, built over a period of 50 years. Mengelberg remains the greatest orchestra builder of all time. Along with Toscanini, he was the first conductor for whom precision was the most important priority. But unlike Toscanini, Mengelberg’s precision was never used for streamlined interpretations. Mengelberg utilized his instrument for maximum drama and emotional involvement. He was a virtuoso conductor in the best sense. No conductor could be the first great champion of Mahler and Strauss without the ability to swallow music whole. As an individualized interpreter, he had few peers and no superiors. Next to Mitropoulos, he gave the most viscrally exciting performances of anyone to ever face an orchestra.

(Franck Symphony in D-minor)

13. Sir Charles Mackerras (Australian, 1926-2010) Our modern-day Monteux. No conductor ever had better taste than Sir Charles. And no conductor did more to champion a composer to the wider world than Mackerras did for Janacek. Occasionally, his performances could be a bit on the dry side, but no conductor has ever forced the world to listen to so much music in so radically different a way than Mackerras did for Purcell, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Donizetti, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Smetana, Brahms, Dvorak, Gilbert & Sullivan, Janacek, Delius and Britten. One looks around at our musical world today and eventually one realizes that no musician did more to shape our world than this unassuming Australian who quietly went about the business of great performances while his peers were more concerned with collecting fees. When the dust clears on this era of performing history, I have little doubt that Mackerras will be remembered as the finest conductor of his generation.

(Handel: Israel in Egypt)

14. Albert Coates (English, 1882-1953) The least known name on this list, and one of the most scandalously underrated names in podium history. Albert Coates was a fiery, spontaneous musician who performed everything with a surfeit of musical personality. He was brave enough to perform all sorts of music Beecham would never dare touch, and musical enough to perform it with an individualized point of view that Adrian Boult could never muster. In Russian, German and English music, he maintains the same commitment to ecstatic musicmaking. Perhaps it was precisely that extremely un-British commitment to make exciting music that kept him from reaching the pinnacle of eminence on Post-Victorian England. The overt emotionalism probably sounded unseemly to his British audiences. But would that any other country had a conductor so committed to inspiration.

(Rimsky-Korsakov: Dance of the Tumblers)

15. Otto Klemperer (German, 1885-1973) Next to Lenny and Stokowski, none of the ‘superstar maestros’ had as healthy an attitude toward music as Klemperer. He kept up his interest in new music to the very end of his life, still performing works by Stravinsky, Bartok, Janacek, Schoenberg and Shostakovich when he could have easily coasted on yet another slow Beethoven performance. Whether the performances originate from his manic younger years or the zen renderings of his final years, they display the same fanatical intensity of commitment. I am not a music lover who takes particularly well to strict rhythmic control, but Klemperer is one of those very rare conductors whose control of the structure (not the execution) is so steady that he makes vice into a virtue. Most conductors try unsuccesfully to control the rhythm, with orchestras lurching forward and backward in a manner that is completely out of the conductor’s control. Klemperer’s (frankly invisible) control of his orchestras is so ironclad that one is forced to concede that yes, his inflexibility not only makes his performances sound more personal, but also goes a long way to explaining his greatness.

(Old Man Klemp doing Beethoven 9)

16. Ernest Ansermet (Swiss, 1883-1969) The mercurial Swiss is the third in the French school’s triumverate who embraced the entire world of music while their supposedly greater German colleagues clung by-and-large to a nationalist view of German music’s superiority. It’s true that occasionally he would conduct in prose while Monteux and Munch conducted in poetry. But his sympathies were, if anything, wider than either Munch’s or Monteux’s. He was completely comfortable in German music, a great conductor of the Russians, and championed the three still underperformed Swiss composers: Honegger, Bloch and Frank Martin. There is still no greater conductor of Stravinsky and his Debussy has very few equals. The orchestra he led for fifty years, the Suisse Romande, was never world-class in technical excellence. But what they lacked in intonation they made up for in a kind of individuality that still put many more corporate orchestras to shame.

(Stravinsky: Petrushka)

17. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Russian, 1931-) It’s difficult to believe that Rozhdestvensky is still around. While Abbado, Haitink and Davis are still feted after fifty years in the spotlight, Rozhdestvensky seems to have dropped off the map. No doubt this has something to do with the death of the Soviet system. But even if does, Rozhdestvensky’s place in history is assured. He was perhaps the great example of the greater freedom that came to Soviet culture in its later years. Mravinsky, the great maestro of the Stalin era, was an unceasingly grim figure who gave performances of familiar repertoire with unbearable and unremitting intensity. Rozhdestvensky was the face of the new Soviet Union. Endowed with greater freedom to perform unfamiliar music, a far greater variety of expression, and possessing a joy in performance which no performer could ever be allowed under Stalin. Had Rozhdestvensky been twenty years older, he might have met the same fate as Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Meyerhold and Isaac Babel merely for conducting in the manner he does.

(Tchaikovsky: Symphony no 4)

18. Sir John Barbirolli (English, 1899-1970) Anyone who doesn’t love Sir John doesn’t love music. Is there any parallel to John Barbirolli leaving the New York Philharmonic to take a war-ravaged semi-professional orchestra and turn it into England’s finest? The Halle Orchestra now has a longer and less variable tradition of excellence (sometimes roughly played, one must admit) than any other British orchestra. He was a conductor devoted to imagination and personality. George Szell, who died at roughly the same time, inspired far better playing. But Barbirolli simply inspired. Few conductors, if any, took more relish in the challenge of ‘big music.’ Whether it was in the opera house doing Verdi and Puccini, or on the concert stage doing Mahler, Elgar, Sibelius or Bruckner, Barbirolli was one of the most willing conductors to ‘go the distance.’ He was also committed, however conservatively, to all kinds of new music. Not for nothing did Ralph Vaughan Williams call him ‘Glorious John.’ But in whatever he conducted, listening to John Barbirolli is an excercise in being moved.

(Finlandia. I grew up with this performance.)

19. Ferenc Fricsay (Hungarian, 1914-1963) It’s a given that Fricsay’s early death was a terrible tragedy for music. Yet it’s truly amazing how much Fricsay packed into the little time he had. Looking at his discography makes one marvel at the prodigious workload he must have taken. Not only was he a promoter of all sorts of new music both eminent and obscure, but he was also a nearly unmatchable director of the classics. Go back to his Mozart opera recordings, the fact that he could get such stylish Mozart out of so many German singers of the 1950’s is nearly a miracle. Yehudi Menuhin always maintained that had Fricsay lived longer he might have supplanted Herbert von Karajan as the world’s most eminent conductor. If so, that makes it doubly a shame that Fricsay didn’t live longer because Fricsay’s attitude towards musicmaking was far healthier than Karajan’s ever was.

(The Moldau)

20. Eugen Jochum (German, 1902-1987) Jochum’s ultra-dramatic interpretive style always belied his reputation as a humble Bavarian Catholic. Jochum will always be known best for his uniquely powerful interpretations of the German Romantics, yet his sympathies were far broader than his reputation first tells you. He championed much new music in the Post-WWII era (not just Orff), and he was the greatest of the Old-School Bach interpreters, endowing Bach with an admittedly nineteenth century pomp but also a dignity that is much more moving than many period instrument forces. But what ultimately distinguishes Jochum from the more starchy elements of German Romanticism is his ability to cut through the bull. He was not content to be another cookie-cutter Kappellmeister. Like Furtwangler, he brought his unique and dangerous conceptions to life without fear. But he seems to take greater joy in his work than Furtwangler. His performances seem to strain far less to obtain their effects, and feel as though they grow as organically as Furtwangler’s were said to have done (but often didn’t). If I view Jochum as the stronger conductor, it’s because I think his performances contain far more of the variety of human experience than the ultra-serious Furtwangler’s ever could.

(Bruckner 8. Tape hiss is fierce but totally worth it.)

7 Honorable Mentions:

- Wilhelm Furtwangler (German, 1886-1954) and Sir Thomas Beecham (English, 1879-1961):
If one combines the philosophical earnestness of Furtwangler with the warm-hearted elan of Beecham, one might arrive at a perfect conductor. The two were said to be close friends, and no doubt each saw qualities in the other that they lacked themselves. I love much which they both did, but what rankles about them both is their inherent distrust of approaches alien to their own. Furtwangler being a self-consciously deep conductor who distrusted anything in music that allowed for light-heartedness. Beecham was self-conciously shallow, and had a distrust of anything that could not provide immediate enjoyment. Both are, on their own terms, indisputably great conductors -- probably the greatest of their particular approaches. Both obtain, in their way, results with an excitement and individuality that no other conductor could ever hope to equal in their particular approach. But if one listens to one then the other, one can immediately understand what they both lack.

- Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Austrian, 1929-) and Rene Jacobs (Belgian, 1946): One day, a conductor not named Mackerras will come along who is equally at home with period ensembles and generalized orchestras. Until then, the two greatest directors of Early Music are both specialists. Many, perhaps most, period directors are almost pathologically inflexible and unimaginative as a matter of dogma. One can no more imagine John Eliot Gardiner or William Christie disregarding a Mozart marking than one can imagine Moamar Qaddafi peacefully relinquishing control of Libya. Sometimes, their very unimaginativeness can yield fascinatingly different results, but following scores and research yields something unique only once (occasionally twice if the research is contradictory). This is what makes Harnoncourt and Jacobs the most valuable directors of period performance. They don’t simply follow research, they recreate the works they perform in a manner that draws on period research without being beholden to it. Imagination is more important to them than scholarship, and because they care more for quality than dogma, their accomplishments mark the true maturity of period performance.

- Hermann Scherchen (German, 1891-1966), Erich Kleiber (Austrian, 1890-1956) and Jascha Horenstein (Ukrainian-German 1898-1973) (Even) I’m surprised by how few Germans there are on this list. The stranglehold of Germany on taste in classical music is, unfortunately, a microcosm of many larger problems in the twentieth century. There is something a little creepy about the readiness of so many musicians to exclude alternative musical styles from the ‘pantheon.’ Thankfully, there are musicians in every country who know better and see music for all that’s good in it. The greatest of this ilk in Germany is still Hermann Scherchen, the eccentric German conductor whose daring as both a programmer and interpreter was unmatched by his countrymen. While Furtwangler and Walter gained prestige with the same ol’ repertoire, Scherchen cared far more for services to music -- spending his career teaching new music and new interpretations of old music to second-rate orchestras, often on limited rehearsal time. The results are as invariably fascinating as they are technically lacking by the standards of the Berlin Philharmonic. Kleiber was a more famous figure and a far more restrained interpreter, but he had a similar musical curiosity that caused him to spend the prime of his career in Argentina than make compromises with a marquee appointment in America or England would have entailed (and does anybody doubt he could have had his pick?). Finally, Jascha Horenstein is everybody’s favorite underdog among conductors. Furtwangler’s protege was poised for a remarkable career before the ascent of Hitler, and spent the next quarter of a century guesting with orchestras no better than Scherchen’s. Like Kleiber, he was far more restrained than Scherchen, but no conductor ever had more uncanny prescience in the repertoire he championed: Mahler, Nielsen, Bruckner, Hindemith, Janacek, Schoenberg would not have arrived at their present eminence without Horenstein’s patient training. The recordings of these composers (and plenty of better-known repertoire) come down to us with lots of sloppy playing, and an amazing presence of drama that comes through despite the flaws. Technical acumen will never cease to be important in performing classical music, but it can never be an end in itself. Far more important is the expression, individuality and commitment of the performers to move us. This, after all, is why we listen to great music.


  1. I don't agree with it 100% (I happen to adore Reiner and loathe Rattle), but I find myself agreeing with a lot of it.

    It's an interesting list and makes more sense than the BBC's top 20, by far.

  2. Came by your article by chance, I actually googled 'greatest conductors' in search of some general tops or whatever, curiosity you know... Your list is quite good, I mean almost as good as it gets, and I know is from 2 years ago but all I can think of now is 3 names which don't occur anywhere and you can't disagree that there is a bit of injustice over here. So how about Rostropovich, Celibidache and Gergiev ?

  3. I love Rafael Kubelik and respect your choices, but for me a ranking without Abbado, Kleiber and Karajan makes no sense.


  4. Your inclusion of and appraisal of Antal Dor√°ti are most perceptive