The current issue of BBC Music Magazine has a featured list of the “20 Greatest Conductors of All Time,” including one fantastic misprint in the press release version of the list now circulating- “Terenc” rather than “Ferenc” Fricsay
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. Terenc 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
I’ve had a few friends and colleagues attempt to bait me into commenting on the list, but have been somewhat hesitant to do so. It turns out that if you single out any living conductor for praise, you run the risk of offending all other living conductors, their agents and their orchestras, and never working again.
Still, it’s an interesting exercise- I like ranking things, and most topics, like “most over-rated pianist” are not suitable for the blog. I’ve therefore decided to leave off all living conductors, even though Haitink would have made my list, and Harnoncourt and Boulez might have had a chance.
In any case, I thought the real value in such a list might be educational. No one conductor is likely to be great at everything, but what they are great we can learn from- it’s important to know where to set the bar of what constitutes great Bruckner or fantastic Shostakovich. Until you know and understand what the greats were great at, you’re in no position to make reasoned assessments of those of us working today. Likewise, if we simply canonize our favorite artists, then there is no incentive for the art to keep growing and evolving. Therefore, I’m going to try to find something critical as well as something complimentary about everyone on the list.
I’ve also intentionally been a little bit arbitrary and perverse with the numerical ranking. Definitive and defensible, this is not!
1. Wilhelm Furtwangler
Furtwangler was the greatest musical storyteller ever to stand before an orchestra. At his best, his performances have un-matched sweep and drama. He also got about the most powerful, elemental, primal and robust sound in history out of the orchestras he worked with, especially the Berlin Philharmonic. The radio broadcasts of his WW II era Beethoven symphonies may be the greatest recordings ever made.
PROS- Incredible ear for sound and articulation. Tremendous sense of legato. Incredible architectural clarity. Near genius at rubato. Mojo-a-gogo.
CONS- Sometimes the tempo risks he takes with temp don’t work and the performances collapse into mannerism. Not strong on more classical Beethoven symphonies like 4 and 6. (The video sample below is both amazing and upsetting), but his dramatic Beethoven (3, 5 and 9) is incomparable.
2. Carlos Kleiber
Just about everyone agrees that Kleiber was the best stick-waver who ever waved a stick. He turns conducting into performance art in a really good way. His fast tempos, such as those in the outer movements of Beethoven 7 or the fast music in Die Fledermaus, are simply miraculous. In later years, his own perfectionism began to get in his way- rare as the performances were, they were more and more likely to suffer from a bit of neurosis and a lack of trust in himself and the musicians.
PROS- Incredible hands and eyes. Makes Beethoven’s tempos work like nobody else. Profound empathy for Viennese style, capable of un-surpass-able elegance.
CONS- Kleiber owed the world more of his gifts than he shared. He owed it to everyone who admired him to find a way past his demons to give us all the Brahms symphonies, all the Mahler, Bruckner and Beethoven. He owed the world a Kleiber La Mer, and a lot more concertos. Age didn’t bring wisdom in his case- his few late performances lack the confidence and conviction of his best work from the 70’s and 80’s. Turns out, according to those who knew him, that Erich Kleiber was not his biological father- it’s believed Alban Berg was.
3. Eugen Jochum
Isn’t no. 3 a little high for Jochum? Well, Jochum is one of those truly great conductors who never seems to get his due on these lists, so I’m making a point. Known today as a Bruckner specialist, he was also the greatest Brahms conductor who ever lived. His Brahms cycle with the LPO from the 70’s is as good as it gets, his Berlin cycle from the 50’s almost as good as that. Very much descended from Furtwangler, Jochum may not have had quite the elemental temperament, but his sense of rubato, while still incredibly daring, is perhaps more un-erring than even that of Furtwangler.
PROS- Best Brahms conductor ever. Among best Bruckner conductors ever. Classic German technique- shows everything without any showboating. Can be incredibly daring with tempi and rubati, but to fantastic effect. Kept getting better and better right to the end of his life- witness this Bruckner from just before his death. Look at his hands- very small and focused motions but so powerful.
CONS- Repertoire a little limited. Some of his earlier Bruckner needed more architecture and less pushing and pulling of tempos.
4. Ferenc Fricsay
Every conductor and critic should carefully study the film of him rehearsing The Moldau with a so-so orchestra in Stuttgart before his death. He totally transforms that band in 45 minutes, and gives the best performance of that piece you’ll ever hear. A huge talent and a very interesting musician.
PROS- Great Bartokian, great hands, very exciting performer. Incredible Beethoven performer, including the best Beethoven 1 ever
CONS- Recorded a lot of Vienese repertoire which lacks a little bit of warmth and charm
5. Dimitri Mitropoulos
One of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, according to everyone I’ve met who knew him. An amazing musical mind, tremendous charisma and total commitment to everything he did. It’s one of the great tragedies of conducting history that there are so few recordings that do him justice, and almost no video or film.
PROS- Astound memory, depth of musicianship and ear. Very committed performer who inspired almost un-matched adulation and admiration from orchestra musicans.
CONS- Sometimes he seems to have wanted more than the musicians of his day could give. Some of the recordings are a little scrappy, although many of those are live. I wish there were a better video to show, but if you can get past the limitations of it as a document, what he does is pretty amazing.