Part three of our survey of the real 20 greatest conductors of all time is now ready. Part one is here, part two is here. We hope that you will appreciate the many careful minutes of preparation and consideration that went into this list, and the dozens of meticulously managed seconds spent crafting the commentaries that follow.
Seriously- keep those comments coming!
11. Thomas Beecham
Beecham excelled at what people like Jochum, Wand and Asahina fall short at- elegance, elan and grace. In that sense, he resembles Bernstein in being able to turn corners, but far excels Lenny in attention to sound quality and precision of articulation. Not just a light-music god, though. His Schumann, especially tragic Schumann, is quite amazing
PROS- Must have been a record producer’s dream- able to get precise, elegant and refined playing in almost no time through combination of good hands and great preparation of his own library of parts. Fantastic Schumann and Haydn conductor. Funniest conductor ever.
CONS- Now we’re all expected to invest the family pharmaceutical fortune to start our own London orchestra.
12. Charles Munch
Munch was a phenomenon. He certainly divides people- my friend Michael Steinberg found him evil incarnate as an interpreter. Granted, Munch is about as daring, impetuous and interventionist a performer as you’re going to find, but he gets away with it in my book because he had the most astonishing skill set ever and everything came from the heart. It may be over the top, but it is honestly and thoughtfully over the top.
PROS- Possibly the greatest hands ever, certainly gives Kleiber, Bernstein and Karajan a serious run for their money on the technique front. The greatest interpreter of French orchestral repertoire I know- much of his Debussy, Berlioz, Ravel and Franck may never be bettered.
CONS- Like Lenny, he is not to be imitated. Those freedoms and liberties belong to him, not you or I. Sometimes, he does push the envelope too far, but I can live with that.
13. Adrian Boult
Quite possibly the most under-rated conductor ever. I’ve never heard a bad recording by Boult. Unlike some British conductors, he excelled at all kinds of repertoire, including har-core German and even Russian repertoire, which he conducted like a native. Gave the first UK performance of Mahler 3 in the 30’s, now available on CD, and it is an AMAZING document.
PROS- Great musical decision maker- his performances make sense, but they also have tremendous energy. Nothing is ever, ever boring, nothing ever feels self-indulgent, but neither does anything sound too cold or puritanical. His music-making is full of intensity, purpose, commitment and passion.
CONS- If he had been a little more charismatic and demonstrative, he would have been the most popular conductor of all time. At the end of the day, reaching our audience is part of our job, and needs all our tools, not just our musicianship.
(Actual conducting starts at 2:50- worth finding!)
14. Eugene Ormandy
Critics hate Ormandy. It must be the first “fact” they teach at critic school- always work in an Ormandy slam into every article your write. Record collectors hate him, too. I just don’t get it. The film of him looks pretty impressive- classical and classy conducting technique, not at all showy. His Philadelphia Orchestra was the only real rival to Karajan’s Berlin for sonic beauty in the 50s-70s, but was also a tighter and more versatile band.
PROS- Incredible memory. Listen to something like the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto with him, Rostropovich and the Philly Orchestra. Everything is perfectly balanced, perfectly voiced, totally together. Listen to the blend and power of the woodwind, the cohesion of the strings. It’s about as good as orchestra playing gets, and in a concerto- how many conductors on this list come up short as accompanists? Not Ormandy. Let’s face it, there is no orchestra or conductor on earth that can currently make a sound to rival the playing on Ormandy’s Shostakovich 10 or Sibelius performances. Before we slag him off, show me any band that sounds that coherent, lush, vibrant and powerful.
CONS- Since he never gets a good review and seems to carry no street cred with anyone, I’m going to spare him. He was, however, very, very short.
15. Rafael Kubelik
Critics love Kubelik. He’s the anti Ormandy- all street cred. The record collector crowd love him, too. Few writers ever miss the chance to point out something he did better than the interpreter under discussion. His performances have what Ormandy’s are said to lack- fire, primal energy and danger. They also often lack what Ormandy’s had- polish and professionalism. His Dvorak symphony cycle with Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic is as good as it gets- some of the most exciting performances in music history. His Dvorak Overtures and Tone Poems set with his own Bavarian Radio Symphony is way less polished, and quite disappointing as a result. In that sense, he’s like a Czech Bernstein crossed with Furtwangler. Tons of mojo, tons of storytelling, rather less refinement.
PROS- Drama, energy, commitment, passion. His live Das Lied von der Erde with Janet Baker is a desert island disc, as is his Dvorak 7 with Berlin. A great communicator
CONS- Poor orchestra trainer to judge by the technical standards of the BRSO during his tenure, and a rather strange, Furtwanglerian technique.