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

Welcome back! We hope you are enjoying our survey of the real 20 greatest conductors of all time- you can read part one here. On to numbers 6-10. Who are your favorites? Do share your comments. Remember, all rankings are potentially arbitrary and or perverse.

. Herbert von Karajan

Karajan will always divide opinion- he probably should. His political calculations and affiliations as a young many should make all but the most cynical person uncomfortable, but he was a major musician. At the end of the day, he led the greatest orchestra in the world for many decades.  There hasn’t been an orchestra that awe-inspiring or dominant since his death.

PROS- Great hands, great memory, incredible ear for sound. A wonderful Strauss conductor, very good at Wagner (there, I said it!), his performances of the more Romantic Beethoven (3, 5,7 and 9) are very good. Unlike many of his countrymen, he did well with French and Russian repertoire, and his Sibelius recordings are rather special. I think the minimalist  reinvention of his technique in his last years is quite remarkable- he could do amazing things with sound while hardly moving. Never let a misguided obsession with precision of ensemble get in the way of a good sound.

CONS- Never let precision of ensemble get in the way of a good sound. His more classical Beethoven is lumpy and lacking a bit of grace. His Brahms is so good it just ought to be better, and would be better if it was really together. Slightly disappoints one in the fact that although he had the greatest orchestra of his day, some of the definitive recordings of that time were made by guest conductors in Berlin, notably Kubelik and Jochum.

7. Leonard Bernstein

What can you say? Nobody does more shit wrong than Lenny- he makes big, seemingly ego-driven errors of judgement quite often. However, there is so much he did that nobody has done better. Yes, the end of his Shostakovich 5 is a shambolic mess, but the slow movement is far better and deeper than anyone else’s, including all the Ruskies.

PROS- Tremendous technique and ability to get things to turn corners with amazing style and coherence. Sure he’s great at American music and Mahler (and say what you will about his mistakes in Mahler, there are many things he’s gotten right in Mahler that nobody else has because nobody since has had his technique and his balls), but he’s also surprisingly good at Haydn (not so much at Mozart), Hindemith and others that might surprise you.

CONS- Very little interest in sound quality and color (other than at magic moments, where he was uniquely sensitive), and often got scrappy playing from the Vienna and New York philharmonics. Some things are completely over the top. Conductors must never imitate him- it never works and everyone sees right through it.

8. Yevgeny Mravinsky

The only conductor Karajan considered a true equal. Best known for his Russian repertoire, especially Shostakovich, but his Bruckner is legendary in Russia. Gergiev calls it the most awe-inspiring music making he ever heard.

PROS- Incredible power from minimal gestures. His Lenningrad Phil may have been the most gigantic sounding orchestra- he would definitely be the one to conduct the end of the world. Amazing orchestral trainer. Performances of his always know where they are going, and they always seem to deliver what they promise.

CONS- Sometimes doesn’t dig deep enough in Shostakovich’s slow music- tends to rush through things like the slow movement of the 5th. His music-making never seems to smile- not someone you would want to see do Till Eulenspiegel or Beethoven 2.

9. Gunter Wand

Same repertoire as Jochum, but almost completely different approach. Where Jochum was all freedom and flexibility, Wand was all structure and simplicity. Probably the greatest Brucknerian of all time, and gives Jochum a run for his money on Brahms.

PROS- Watch the DVDs of his Bruckner performances with the NDR- it is a masterclass in everything- orchestral playing, showing what you really need to show, pacing everything perfectly.

CONS- Pretty limited repertoire, not reputed to be a very good or willing accompanist. Seems like cheating to call yourself “Wand” if you are a conductor


10. Takashi Asahina

I didn’t even know about Asahina existed until after he died. Who knew there was another Furtwangler/Jochum in Japan all those years? It’s a pity Euro-American prejudice about Japanese musicians kept him from being seriously considered in the West until he was quite elderly. Now that he is something of a cult figure, some good recordings and great films are becoming available.

PROS- At his best, he could make the orchestra sound like 100,000 angry bison in a good way. The sound literally seems to be coming from ten stories underground and forcing its way up from deep inside the earth. A great, great Brahms 1 conductor

CONS- His technique seemed completely geared to getting that incredible sound. As a result, rhythm was basically left up to the players- there is a granitic strength to what he does, but not much elegance and flexibility. A poor Brahms 2 conductor

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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

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2 comments on “VFTP exclusive- The real Top 20 of Conducting. Part Two: 6-10”

  1. Erik K

    Flip Bernstein and Karajan and I’m on board. Bernstein, for all his myriad faults, could go places no one else could, and in some pretty diverse repertoire. Karajan did look like he was dragging his hands through molasses, though, and that’s a high compliment.

    Funny to see you mention Wand as “probably the greatest Brucknerian of all-time.” I was just about to answer my own question from a few months ago about who the greatest Bruckner interpreter was, and I think Gunter was going to be my answer, too. Either him or Takashi, of course. Asahina’s style, which you describe perfectly, suits Bruckner to perfection…less focus on precision and more on destroying your stereo equipment.

  2. Robert G

    To add to Jochum and Kubelik as conductors who led definitive recordings with HvK’s BPO:
    Dvorak Cello Concerto, Fournier/Szell (although very early in HvK’s tenure) and Mahler 9, Bernstein (HvK followed shortly with a studio and a live recording).

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