Welcome back to our survey of the Real Top 20 Conductors. We are down to our final five spots, and making the final decisions about who is in and who is out is getting ever more fraught. No matter how you cut it, this is a silly exercise- what could be more impossible than identifying the “best” or “most important” members of a given field!
One thing I haven’t worried about at all is who is the best “over-all” conductor. Most of the artists on this list are here for a specific thing or two that they do really well- we’re not going to be all that interested in Futrwangler’s Ravel or Beecham’s Mahler. Bernstein and Karajan, probably the two most “modern” conductors on the list are also the most modern in the sense of being the most versatile and complete. Both conducted a huge range of repertoire from all cultures and historical periods. Claudio Abbado in our time has taken this even further- he seems to be good at everything, and to at one time or another, seems to have recorded almost everything. He accompanies beautifully, excels in opera, seems unflustered by extremes of complexity and now is doing a lot of early music.
“Back in the day,” one could be much more specialized. Conductors could have “fachs” just like singers, and the results could be revelatory. Orchestras used to consider this when choosing conductors- a smart orchestra would have a Music Director, Principal Guest Conductor and Laureate Conductor whose fachs were all different and complimentary. Asahina is on this list because he does a tiny corner of the repertoire with a sound and emotional impact that defies description. Should we penalize him for what he didn’t do, or didn’t do as well? At the end of the day, I suppose versatility is a valuable skill (one I’ve worked hard to develop in my own work), and it is to be considered just as other skills like “great Brucknerian” or “fantastic ear.” I don’t dismiss it, but it’s not the ultimate goal.
There are other considerations for me- primarily my own personal safety. I’ve avoided discussing living conductors out of an astute sense of self-preservation, but what about my friends and colleagues’ passions? Leave off George Szell and J.S may never speak to me again. If Gerhard were alive, he wouldn’t forgive me putting George Szell on the list! Leave off Suitner, and E.K. might never forgive me. Omit Barbirolli and I can never return to the Manchester area again (I have been warned!)…
At the end of the day, the real purpose of this list is just to encourage readers to check out the work of some interesting people. The best part of the BBC Musig Magazine feature is the listing of all the judges Top 3’s. That listing is so infinitely more interesting, valuable and important than what you get when you tally up all those votes into a Top 20. With the judges I know well, my reactions ranged from plenty of “of course’s” for things like David Zinman’s selection of Pierre Monteux (his teacher, who he adored and revered), or James Judd’s selection of Furrtwanger, Kleiber and Barbirolli, which seems like a perfect balance of his tastes, talents and interests manifest in his own work. I was surprised but completely psyched to see Tadaaki Otaka,, who we all love here in Cardiff (I once conducted the offstage brass for him in Mahler 2), mention Carl Schuricht and Lovro von Matacic.
Yuri Temirkanov’s list is also surprising- not a Russian on it! I can only hope one conductor’s top 3 was an April Fool’s joke, but I won’t say who in case I’m wrong and he’s just insane.
I would strongly encourage VFTP readers who have just seen the BBC Top 20 to BUY THE MAGAZINE and go through all of the judges submissions (and the nice interview on the nature of conducting with Gianandrea Noseda which follows). You’ll find it most interesting and surprising.
Meanwhile, stay tuned for tomorrow, when we’ll reveal our final five. Until then, here are some great conductors who didn’t make the cut. It’s a damn impressive list:
Klaus Tennstedt- I actually need to get him on the list next year. Go, Klaus.
John Barbirolli- At his best, quite amazing, and really inspiring but could be uneven, and his technique upsets me.
Pierre Monteaux- A great master musician, his Daphnis and Chloe is a true classic. Not as much fun in French repertoire as Munch, and his interpretive profile in non-French music looks a little middle of the road.
Carla Maria Giullini- Probably should be on the list. Had a very bizarre technique as a young musician, but his late work is astounding and deeply spiritual. Inspires great reverence and gratitude from everyone I know who played for him.
Bruno Walter- Walter was a giant of the first half of the 20th century, and some of his Mahler recordings remain definitive. On the other hand, Walter’s temperament was far more gentle than Mahler’s. Walter is not one to peer into the abyss, but to look to the heavens. As a result, much of his Mahler lacks the sense of real drama and struggle it needs. He also struggled with certain things technically, and this often meant his slow tempos sped up and his fast ones dragged a bit.
Istvan Kertesz- Died too soon, but left an incredible recorded legacy in a very short time. I would love to have gotten him on the list. I’ve never found any video of his work. Anybody got anything?
Jascha Horenstein- The ultimate “cult” conductor. Every time I seem to get some London orchestra old-timers reminiscing about their careers, it seems someone refers to him as the “most hapless conductor we ever saw.” On the other hand, like Barbirolli, there is a genuine spirituality to what he does. I love his Beethoven 9, and the end of his Mahler 8 is magical, even if there are technical problems elsewhere. The recently released DVD of his Beethoven 9 i Paris shows him to not be hapless.
Alexander Gibson- A very important Sibelius conductor, and seriously under-rated in lots of repertoire.
Otto Klemperer- A huge personality, who recorded some great, great stuff. The positives are well known- a sense of power and architecture that is hard to beat. Hard to forgive his Bach, and even harder to forgive his famous Mahler 2, which might be the most over-rated recording in history (not his fault!).
Sergiu Celebidache- Again, the strengths are well known, as are the eccentricities. The slow tempi don’t bother me in his Bruckner, Wagner or even Tchaikovsky recordings with the Munich Philharmonic, and the sound in those is special. Some of his earlier work is really sketchy- scrappy playing was the name of the game in Stuttgart when he was there, and his DVD of Death and Transfiguration from Italy is the worst thing I own.
Fritz Reiner- Recorded the best Bartok Concerto for Orchestra ever, and had a great run in Chicago if you were in the audience. Not so popular with the players he abused and terrorized. More relevant, I just feel like too much of the work is too dry and lacking in imagination and conviction to make the top 20.