VFTP exclusive- The real Top 20 of Conducting. Part One: 1-5

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.


Continue to the rest of the series:

VFTP exclusive- The real Top 20 of Conducting. Part Two: 6-10

VFTP exclusive- The real Top 20 of Conducting. Part Three: 11-15

A “real” conducting divertimento- the legendary composer-conductors

Who is not in the “Real” Top 20…

VFTP exclusive- The real Top 20 of Conducting. Part Four: 16-20

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

33 comments on “VFTP exclusive- The real Top 20 of Conducting. Part One: 1-5”

  1. Erik K

    God bless you for making a real list, because Rattle above Furtwangler makes the BBC list invalid. Can’t wait to see where Suitner comes in. 😉

  2. Dennis

    Thanks for this more inspiring list than the one at the top! Although we only have one fourth of it right now, I eagerly await the completion.

  3. Ed Chang

    (1. Lang Lang. 2. Daniel Barenboim.)

    OK now that that’s out of the way 😉 – thanks very much for this list with your commentary. Lists are EXTREMELY useful to people just getting into classical music – the ranking almost doesn’t matter, just a list of highly recommended artists is so invaluable to the consumer and budding music fan…well – thanks Kenneth! I have to admit some of your choices I’ve listened to for about 10 minutes and then unfairly dismissed when I was just starting out, and now armed with your notes I feel like I should give these fellows another chance.

  4. Jeremy Pound


    I’m really enjoying your article, which gives a different perspective to ours.

    Can I point out a couple of things, however?

    1) Our ‘list’ is actually a 14-page article based on the votes of 100 conductors (three per conductor), which we give in full at the end.

    2) There is no such ‘Fantastic misprint’ as you suggest. In the article, Ferenc Fricsay is spelt correctly throughout. I’ve no problems with anyone disagreeing with the list, or its validity, but please don’t mock us for editorial lapses that we haven’t made… I’d be delighted to send you a copy of the feature if you would like one.

    Yours and with all best wishes!

    Jeremy Pound
    Deputy Editor
    BBC Music Magazine

  5. Robert Berger

    The absense of Solti from this list is inexcusable. He was a true giant of the podium.
    His Wagner,Bruckner,Mahler,Richard Strauss, and Bartok have never been surpassed, and he
    had a surprising affinity for Elgar,too.
    Hs Brahms symphonies witht the C.S.O. are quite underrated , and are surprisingly warm and mellow.

  6. Kenneth Woods

    @Jeremy Pound

    Dear Jeremy

    You are entirely right! Of course, the Terenc misprint occurred in the press release announcing the feature and not in the print version. The press release with typo is here (for reader info only)

    It is entirely my carelessness that I didn’t differentiate that clearly here. It has since been corrected. My sincere apology. The beauty of magazines over blogs is in editing and care for detail- I know better than most how easy it is to overlook mistakes and how hard editors work to make writers look good.

    Also, in the same sentence, I had my own spectacular typo, Friscay instead of Fricsay. God loves irony. Karma at work

    I’m very glad you’re enjoying the list, and hope you can forgive the completely tongue in cheek use of “real”…..

    All best

  7. Brian Stone

    I’m with you all the way Ken. Esp. about Fricsay and Furtwangler. I also love Jochum’s recording of Carmina.

  8. Peter

    It would of course be interesting to deal with the subject in relation to living and active conductors, or at least tp attempt to place them against these undoubtedly rather dead masters.

    Where would Mahler have sat in this pantheon I wonder – shame that he did not record anything, but his reputation was formidable.

    Then different conductors achieve greatness in different repertoires. You could have a top 10 opera conductors, top 10 accompanists, top ten in French repertoire. You could also produce of a list of the top ten most underrated conductors or top ten really great, but totally inconsistent and self-destructive conductors.

    Those who sustained great careers and made many recordings have a huge advantage over those who drank themselves into a stupour or just never got that DG recording contract that would have brought them to prominence.

    Whence comes that story about Berg and Kleiber? It seems to be rather wild speculation which the Kleiber website is eager to dismiss.

  9. Hank Zauderer

    Check for a typo:

    Kleiber’s father was ERICH Kleiber, spelled with the German “CH”, not “CK”…


    I agree with your view that Carlos is #1!!! I suspecct that, like many performers, he simply did not like to be on stage; that was unltimately the case with Glenn Gould, as well… But at least Gould gave us a lot of recordings…

  10. Reid K

    Seems kinda heavy on the ‘recorded-era’ conductors. ; )

  11. Kenneth Woods

    @Elaine Fine

    Hi Elaine

    I’m not allowed to reveal my source for the Berg-Kleiber theory. Knowing the source, though, I’d say it’s 80% sure that Erich was not Carlos’ biologicial dad, and 65% that it is Berg who did the deed. There is apparently a book being written. You read it here first!

  12. Kenneth Woods

    @Brian Stone

    Brian! Great to hear from you. I don’t know Jochum’s Carmina- I’ll have to track it down.

    Readers- Maestro Brian is a kick-butt conductor, most recently director of orchestras at University of Delaware. If you have a chance to see his work, do.

    Amazing I can get so many brilliant people reading this sill blog.


  13. Kenneth Woods

    @Evan Tucker

    Evan- I like the beginning of your list. Good for you having the nerve to include the not-yet-deceased. Your praise of Jarvi Sr reminds me of when I was playing some chamber music with a flutist from the Detroit Sym when he was music director. “Why would I ever leave- I’ve got a completely secure job, and I still think I work with the best conductor in the world after he’s been here for several years.” There’s no higher praise than that- continued respect from the players after the first date thrill is long gone. As for the secure job…..

    Look forward to the rest of your list

  14. Kenneth Woods


    Actually, Peter, you read my mind- I was already thinking about some alternate lists. A pre-recording list, a composer list, etc….

    The boozy burnout list, which I’m calling the Wyn Morris list, is now open for nominations.

  15. Erik K

    Interestingly enough, I believe I heard Jochum at his very worst last night. I stumbled upon some Tahra discs (Walter Bruckner 9 + Mahler 4, Abendroth Beethoven 9 + the Brahms Symphonies, Jochum Bruckner 8 + Dvorak Cello Concerto w/ Mainardi). Good stuff, and well worth the money…except for the Dvorak, which was as horribly unidiomatic and forced as John Cusack in any movie made after 1995. I respect the hell out of Jochum, but it’s no surprise that he stayed away from Dvorak…he should have stayed away from this, too.

  16. Matt B

    Great post, Ken! I would have had Celibidache in my top 5. And with him, I would be happy to replace 5 of those names (not saying which though!) with Fritz Reiner, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter and Charles Munch!

  17. Foster Beyers

    I believe Walter Hendl can be added to the boozy burn-out list.

  18. Monika Bialas

    I can’t believe that Bernstein ended up as #2 on this list. Admitted, he was good in conducting musicals like Candide and West Side Story, but real music he could not. The reason why he ended up on top is that the radio stations in Los Angeles, and apparently in London, keep pushing his CD’s. It must be the royalties. Von Karajan or Furtwaengler belonged in his space. Bernstein belong on the next page.

  19. Erik K

    Monika Bialas :I can’t believe that Bernstein ended up as #2 on this list. Admitted, he was good in conducting musicals like Candide and West Side Story, but real music he could not. The reason why he ended up on top is that the radio stations in Los Angeles, and apparently in London, keep pushing his CD’s. It must be the royalties. Von Karajan or Furtwaengler belonged in his space. Bernstein belong on the next page.

    I would agree that perhaps Furtwangler should have been closer to the top, but I disagree that Bernstein couldn’t conduct “real” music. His Mahler is awesome, his Sibelius is very quietly among the best, his Haydn is really good, his Shostakovich is sneaky awesome…

    He may as well have been blind based on his realization of scores, but some of his music-making won’t ever be topped by anyone ever, and that’s gotta count for something.

  20. Adam

    I’ve only just discovered this list now. I can tell there was a great deal of thought put into this and at times it’s very provocative. You mentioned(and quite rightly so) that many in the Euro-US bubble tend to ignore Japan’s classical performers. I would say to a slightly lesser extent the same is true for Russian conductors and other Eastern Bloc conductors. For example whilst I agree Kubelik was a legend, when it comes to the Czech school of conductors I tend to favour Václav Neumann. It seems that because Kubelik made a career in Western Europe and the US we tend to forget that Neumann shaped the Czech sound for a period of time almost as long as Karajan was in Berlin. As for Russia I agree Mravinsky was the finest Russia has ever and probably will ever produce(as the younger generations tend to favour a more homogenised/international approach) but what about the likes of Kondrashin or Svetlanov, the latter doing for Rimsky-Korsakov what Mravinsky did for Tchaikovsky.
    The only ones on the list I take exception to are Bernstein, who is a legend as much for what he is not as what he is. He was a playboy artist in that order. As for Sir Thomas Beecham, there is no doubt that any Englishman owes a great debt of thanks for what he did for music here, but on pure artistry, I would say the list would have to be a top thirty to merit his presence, not a top 20.
    I fully stand by your decision though to leave out Solti. He was certainly a reliable conductor and never a bad one but likewise never a brilliant one. With hindsight his style possible set in motion the kind of bland style so many otherwise talented maestros aspire to today. They’d rather be the next Solti(from a perspective of ability not hard to do) than a new Mravinsky or Furtwangler.
    Whilst Mitropoulos was exciting for his unusual style, I really can’t see him deserving a position so high on this list, especially since Reiner(who is certainly not in my top ten but at least in my top 25) was left off.
    As I said lists are very subjective and for me are more fun for their ability to provoke than than they are used as a definitive guide. But I will end with this. I am rather shocked than Klemperer is nowhere on the list. His school of Beethoven now feels more remote than even that of Furtwangler. Today we have the pseudo-period stuff(fast tempi, small orchestras) and there is still a great deal of respect for the Furtwangler approach with heavy rubato and a great deal of emotion. But Klemperer’s approach, austere, elegant and grand seems to have vanished entirely. Without promoting his legacy I fear future generations may miss out on an entire school of Beethoven.

  21. Kenneth Woods
  22. Adam

    Hi Kenneth,
    Looks like I missed the latter-most 4. I fully agree with your words on Neumann and his CPO predecessors. Like Leningrad the CPO is an Eastern Bloc orchestra who have westernised for seemingly no reason. Vienna and Berlin still sound like Vienna and Berlin why not the Czechs and St. Petersburg?

    I appreciate you doing a non-top 20 top list as it’s hard to get the many 20th century greats in 20 spots. As someone who never cared for Mahler a great deal whilst being something of a Brucknerian, I can understand why Mahler aficionados would dislike Kelmperer for not living up to the supposed( and real) ideals of his ‘master’. Glad to see Walter mentioned also. His Bruckner is not my favourite(my favourites being Karajan, Furtwangler and perhaps oddly Mravinsky) though his Bruckner merits a listen by all serious Brucknerians.

    Thanks for the links. I’ll be sure to read your other things as well.

  23. Adam

    PS. Part of me wants to put Karl Bohm on the list of non-top 20. His work is solid, un-pretentious and always well constructed.

  24. Kenneth Woods


    Good call on Bohm- not always all that inspiring, but thoughtful, and occasionally things take off to another level (especially in Strauss). Scherchen is another very underrated one- quite the maverick in many ways

  25. Adam

    Yes, Scherchen and Knappertsbusch for that matter both fall under the radar. Both are solid and often inspired German romanticists and both are very good with Beethoven.

  26. JDW

    Though my post comes two years on, I cannot help noting how enjoyable your list is, Maestro Woods. In particular, I enjoyed the mixture of insightful, astute commentary and genial humor. It would be interesting to read commentary on what constitutes a great conductor. This might sound alternatively flippant or naive but I am in dead earnest. Is it merely music-making? Based on live performance or recorded legacy or both? Cultural (Furtwangler) or commercial impact (Karajan, Bernstein)? Orchestra building? Collaboration? There are many variables. Here I confess Furtwangler is for me the conductor nonpareil: a consummate artist, a man of broad culture, and formidable intellect but also an individual wholly consumed by music and hostile to the commodification of music made seemingly inevitable by our technophilia and rampant consumerism. However, I acknowledge the difficulty of listening to some of his recordings due to sonic limitations and the stark frenzy of certain performances. Then again is there a finer recording of classical music than his Schumman 4? Words fail me.

    I was thrilled to see Fricsay on your list as his recording of Beethoven’s 9th and Egmont Overture with the Berlin Philharmonic is one of my favorite CDs. My first taste of Fricsay was a delightful DG LP with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Die Moldau, Egmont, and Liszt’s Preludes. The warmth, vitality and lyrical beauty of these performances stunned me. He was an inimitable artist combining dynamism with a cultivated sensibility and, yet, as you mention, his survey of Viennese waltzes is perfunctory and a little stale. I was shocked by this as I had expected him to electrify and inspire this repertoire with moments of ecstatic loveliness and verve. Not a whit. Which brings me to my ultimate point: in addition to hearing about what constitutes a great conductor generally, I have an inclination to hear your thoughts on individual composers and their most accomplished interpreters. I realize one can construct this list in patches from your top 20 but a broader survey would be most welcome. Oh, by the way, I was also quite pleased to see Jochum toward the top of the list. Such a talent.

  27. Alex

    The BBC Music Magazine’s “20 Greatest Conductors of All Time” list has to be a cynical joke as it did not include Otto Klemperer or Hans Rosbaud who were arguably two of the greatest conductors of all time, whilst the list absurdly and insanely included Simon Rattle who technically, and empirically, speaking, simply cannot conduct! Anyone with an historical knowledgeable of the art of conducting would know that Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink, Colin Davis and Leonard Bernstein are certainly not ‘great conductors’ but mere mediocrities. There is simply no empirical-musical evidence that Simon Rattle is a conductor and this is clearly evident on film where Rattle tried to conduct a Sibelius Symphony Cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Barbican Center in London recently (not forgetting Rattle’s total inability to conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony recently at the Royal Festival Hall in London).

  28. Niles

    I know I am late to the party, but I couldn’t resist. The top five are all laughable. Carlos Kleiber as No. 1? Sure he had two great albums, but literally just two. That is like a tennis or golf player deciding to only compete twice a year and expect to be competitive on a global scale. Lenny was an extraordinarily gifted pianist and composer, but a mediocre conductor. Abbado made me pine for the days of Karajan at the BPO, which is not a complement. Which leads me to #4, the most overrated conductor ever. And then going down to #5, Harnoncourt????? Really? I saw him with the VPO in Cleveland when he wasn’t even within two beats of the orchestra. Name one reference recording credited to him. And then comes #6, Sir Simon. Perhaps the most boring English conductor since Andre Previn.

    Where is Fritz Reiner, or Mengelberg, or Celibadache or Munch or Walter or Markevitch or Rozhdestvensky or Janssons or Kubelik or Paray or Blomstedt or Muti or Sanderling or Klemperer or Yakov Kreizberg? I won’t even name any of the younger conductors whose legacy may still not be established.

    Granted, tastes vary from person to person and country to country, but I have to highly disagree with the BBC, no matter how many fablously gifted and knowledgeable music staffers they have.

  29. fflambeau

    I enjoyed your “rankings” very much. But two questions:

    1) how do you deal with someone like Vernon Handley, the British conductor, who never much wanted fame or success, who never achieved a conductor ship of a top orchestra (although he led some very good ones), and who despised the PR that most conductors seems to aspire to? Handley reportedly said this: “”jet-set musical careers… are little to do with the work, more to do with PR”. Isn’t this kind of rankings playing into that kind of thinking? By the way, Handley was a student of Adrian Boult’s and he recorded something like 100 premieres of British works!

    2) How would you rate Serge Alexandrovich Koussevitzky (the long-time conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra)? Shouldn’t he be on your list? I am not sure about his musicianship but he really did some astounding things for classical music, premiered many works, brought about Tanglewood, championed American music etc.? And didn’t he have strengths (building and promoting an orchestra, for instance) that might raise the question: exactly what are we ranking/rating conductor’s for, or to put it differently, what does it mean to be an outstanding conductor?

  30. Kenneth Woods

    Hi ffambeau

    You’ve mentioned two conductors I have close ties to and admire enormously.

    Tod Handley was my predecessor at the English Symphony Orchestra and we have many, many friends and colleagues in common, all of whom admired him a great deal. He was a fantastic musician and a wonderful interpreter, and he took great pride in his ability to conduct non-English repertoire, too.

    Koussevitsky is my grand-teacher (my conducting teacher’s conducting teacher), although Gerhard (my teacher) always said of him “Koussevitsky couldn’t teach at all, but you could learn a lot from just being around him.” There are many confusing stories about K’s ability to actually read scores- he apparently used a pianist to help him learn things and practice his conducting. However, some of his recordings are just beyond thrilling, and Gerhard said again and again that K had the greatest ear for color of any conductor he ever knew, and that he could shape a melody like nobody else.

    Thanks for mentioning them both!


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