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

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.


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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.

17 comments on “VFTP exclusive- The real Top 20 of Conducting. Part Three: 11-15”

  1. Foster Beyers

    Great list so far. I have never seen a video of Boult so that is a real find!

    Don’t know what you have in store for the next five but I think a case can be made for Celibidache. I know he was pretty extreme but for pure legato and spectacularly perfect balance he can’t be bettered. He was amazing at achieving a great weight of sound without sounding forced even at glacial tempos.

    If you are considering a list of least appreciated and/or the best of the unknown conductors you might want to check out a guy names Herbert kegel who did some fantastic conducting behind the iron curtain before committing suicide in 1989 right when a real international career could have been possible for him. he made some great recordings of Webern and Schoenberg, maybe some of the best ever. Certainly his Gurre Lieder is fantastic!

  2. A.C. Douglas

    “[Munch is] the greatest interpreter of French orchestral repertoire I know- much of his Debussy, Berlioz, Ravel and Franck may never be bettered.”

    Certainly his _Symphonie Fantastique_ with the BSO done for RCA way back in the 1950’s will never be bettered or even equaled — or, rather, the first movement of that work. The slightly tipsy, slightly off-kilter quality he infused into that music (or, rather, made sensible in the music as that quality is everywhere implied in the score) is a miracle of sorts. I can’t begin to imagine how he accomplished it and apparently neither can anyone else, for I’ve never heard anything like it in any other recorded performance of this work.


  3. A.C. Douglas

    On Ormandy:

    On Opera-L, just a few days ago, I had occasion to comment on Ormandy vis-à-vis the damage done to the Philadelphia Orchestra under Muti’s twelve-year stewardship as the orchestra’s MD.

    Here’s what I wrote:

    “Muti all but destroyed the Philadelphia Orchestra. The first thing to go was
    its lush, Romantic signature sound; the sound instilled by Stokowski and
    maintained for an astonishing 44 years under the uninspiring but able
    stewardship of Ormandy (a second-rate conductor but a first-rate
    répétiteur).” (Balance of what I wrote omitted here as it’s not relevant.)

    It should be understood that I was born in Philly and was virtually raised in the Academy of Music from childhood through my adolescent years, all of which years the PO was under Ormandy’s directorship.


  4. Richard B

    Great stuff! Are we going to get Celibidache? Glorious John? And why is no-one mentioning Fritz Reiner

  5. Peter

    Very interesting stuff – as you say the elements that make a great conductor are many and various. There’s a bit of showbusiness in there, some play-acting, certainly some serious ego. I love Boult’s huge baton, as thin and long as he was himself tall.

    There’s another category to consider – composer-conductors. Britten was a fine conductor for example. There have been some bad ones too, trading on their reputations or the misguided belief they were the only true interpreters of their own work.

    Richard Strauss may have been a great conductor, if we had better material.

    Stravinsky seems to have no greate reputation either way.

    I will be interested to know whether any of Abbado, Tennstedt, Horenstein, Barbirolli or Walter will turn up in your final five.

    I suppose once you get down to that level, many more can make a case for inclusion. It’s a pyramid, not a ladder.

  6. Erik K

    Yay for Kubelik if for no other reason than he owns Ma Vlast, one of the best pieces out there. In fact, I own Kubelik owning Ma Vlast, as I have (I believe) 9 different recordings of Kubelik conducting it.

    Looking forward to the final 5!

  7. Kenneth Woods

    @Erik K
    9 Kubelik Ma Vlasts? I salute you sir!

    Seriously, Kubelik is the greatest advocate for out of tune, not-together playing this side of Mitropoulos. That’s a good thing

  8. Jay M

    Really enjoying this series…. my first comment

    Ormandy: For many years I worked in record retail, and you’re right record collectors hate Ormandy and so do critics. At first I went along with the crowd –we’d even joke about his records without hearing them –but once in a while we’d play one and to be honest, they were never bad! In fact often quite good, but it was only with grudging admission that anyone would agree they were good. His Rachmaninov 3 with Ashkenazy from 1976 is magnificent and, aside from some too-close piano recording, is one of the best ever (on an admittedly gigantic list for that work). Well, Ormandy’s Rachmaninov in general was excellent, but so were his other Russians and even his Mahler (Das Lied, and the Tenth at any rate)

    Also agree about Sir Adrian Boult: very underrated. In the 70s, when new issues were still coming from him, we all took him for granted. Maybe it was part of the anti-British music cult that many American music people subscribe to? Was he just a parochial British conductor, good with “those English composers” but not otherwise? I never heard a bad recording from him….although I have to say that Mahler 3 comes close, it doesn’t really sound like he understood Mahler at all (I remember thinking this about one year ago when I heard it, and I can’t recall details now). I consider Elgar’s two symphonies among the greatest to the Twentieth Century and Boult’s stereo renditions are among the most persuasive ever made (I’ve always wondered, why don’t more Mahler fans like Elgar? Well that’s another topic)

    Keep that list coming! 🙂

  9. Evan Tucker

    Thanks so much for your kind words about my list Ken. It means a lot coming from a real pro. I completely agree that Ormandy is about thirty years overdue for a revaluation, but I couldn’t bring myself to put him down because anyone who made as many recordings as Ormandy would have to be very inconsistent. Very often, particularly in earlier days, he was the total antithesis of the dull time-beater he’s often considered. But as he got older his performances seemed to ossify and routine set in.

    Boult was even harder to leave off, maybe just a downright mistake. Like Monteux, he makes so few errors in judgement that it’s easy to take him for granted. But in Monteux’s case, the self-effacement is clearly just a facade for an overwhelming personality. With Boult, I sometimes get a sense of inhibition, as though he knows that he could get more expression from the piece in question, but for whatever reason he thinks it would be wrong to do so.

    In any event, here’s my list for anybody who’d be interested in perusing it.


    Best Wishes,


  10. Brian Wells

    @Richard B
    Virtually every “Top 10” or “Top 20″lists of greatest conductors that I encounter leave out Fritz Reiner.You are a very rare example of anyone even remarking on this omission!In my humble opinion,Fritz Reiner IS clearly among the greatest conductors ever.Fortunately,many, many record collectors,audiophiles,and The Penguin Guide To Compact Discs apparently concur with our assessment of Reiner`s enormous talent.Still,very strange-seems like every single one of these lists include everybody but Reiner.

  11. www.stephenpbrown.com

    Hi Kenneth.
    Just came across your blog recently and am loving it – not enough hours to absorb it all. Can we subscribe via email? Don’t see a link.
    (Oh, and the Top 20 First part and Second part links above don’t work… sorry!)

  12. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Stephen

    Thanks so much for getting in touch! It’s always nice to know when colleagues are reading. Thanks for pointing out the broken links- they should be fixed now.

    Hope I can see you work one of these days

    All best

  13. Charles Andrews

    I really enjoy your site Mr. Woods. I’ve been listening to the Jochum Brahms with the Berlin Phil in the car lately and I’m convinced it’s the best Brahms I’ve ever heard. He WAS the best Brahms conductor ever. Although I’ll always have a soft spot for the Brahms 4th Stoki recorded right at the end of his life. Hell of a ride.

    I was curious about your take on Rudolph Kempe and Wolfgang Sawallisch. In his element Kempe was unbeatable, seems to me, and I’ll argue that Sawallisch’s Schumann Symphony recordings with Dresden back in the 1970s is the best Schumann ever laid to tape. Pace your own, which I have not yet heard.

  14. Tom Morrissey

    Kurt Sanderling and Hans Rosbaud deserved more consideration. I think you’re too tough on Celi, who did some things (Brahms, Bruckner) incomparably well, and if his interests were too narrow– shouldn’t that apply to the saintly Carlos as well?…. Happy to see Szell on the list, perhaps the greatest, non-authenticist Haydn interpreter ever. As a repertory completist, I’d take him over Karajan in a heartbeat…. While I’m in agreement with you, basically, about Toscanini, I wonder if your views have been excessively colored by the miserable sound RCA got for him in Studio 8H– if he’d lived longer, he perhaps would have benefited as Monteux and Reiner did from ‘Living Stereo’…. And where’s Mengelberg?

  15. dieter barkhoff

    Agree with Tom Morrissey, especially about Kurt Sanderling. His Shostakovich, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius, Haydn and Rachmaninov are outstanding recordings. His Borodin 2nd is sensational, as is his Schubert 9…

  16. Kenneth Woods
  17. dieter barkhoff

    Is it possible for you to give an insider’s appreciation of Sanderling’s work? I read somewhere a blog by I think the oboist of the Boston Symphony about Sanderling’s ‘True’ way with the Schubert 9, for example.
    If you need access to any of his recordings I have just about everything that’s available commercially, plus some cd conversions of concert broadcasts with the likes of the Berlin Phil, the Concertgebouw and various other German and Swiss orchestras. The most astounding is a Rotterdam Prokofiev 6…I am happy to send duplicates to you.

    Dieter Barkhoff

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