Who is not in the “Real” Top 20…

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.

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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.

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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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10 comments on “Who is not in the “Real” Top 20…”

  1. michael chant

    I think if I had to chose one record out of all recording history it would be Klemperer’s Mahler 2 (my fault).

  2. Lisa Hirsch

    I have to tell you, I hated Reiner’s Concerto for Orchestra for the first ten years I owned it. I’d listen to it annually and go “what?”. I only started loving the piece after I got Ancerl’s recording. Hmmm, he’s not listed above, so maybe he made the cut.

    By the way, the last time I listened to the Reiner I thought it was fine. Go figure.

  3. Erik K

    No wrath from me…I consider myself fairly able to separate my tastes from reality, even if these lists are subjective. My favorite conductors of all-time are Suitner, Kondrashin, and Asahina, but I would never try and argue for any of them as being the GREATEST of all-time, because I think you can say, relatively empirically, that their legacies are not of the caliber of Furtwangler, Bernstein, Solti, whoever. Likewise, I really adore the music of Smetana and am fairly lukewarm on much of Mozart, but I think it’s plainly obvious that Smetana didn’t write Don Giovanni, therefore Mozart is better.

    I’m fairly excited to see the dramatic conclusion, and have but two questions:

    1) Which Klemperer M2? The one on EMI with Schwarzkopf?

    2) Have you seen that video of Giulini conducting Brahms 1 where he gets the complete devil eyes at the end? It’s TERRIFYING!

  4. Evan Tucker

    I wouldn’t feel too guilty about Giulini. I probably the only music lover who never understood the reverance that accompanied Giulini. He’s certainly did quality work in his career, but even at his best it feels to me like he’s still rather generic. There are so many conductors who get more out of pieces they do.

    Leaving Celibidache off my list was hard, but leaving Bruno Walter off was damn-near impossible. More than any other conductor, coming to America changed his approach profoundly. Most of his pre-stereo recordings are as fiery as anything Toscanini or Mengelberg did.

    But I wish I could have had room for a bunch of others too: Fritz Busch, Jimmy Levine, Vaclav Talich, Gunter Wand and especially Georg Solti. I hope you have Solti in your bottom 5.

  5. Jay MacIntyre

    The omission of Klemperer and Walter is truly surprising. Both made some of the greatest recordings ever.

    I think Walter’s Mahler was generally top drawer, with his Mahler 9th among the greatest (on an admittedly long list for that work) for its inwardness and genuine melancholy. Walter’s Brahms is astonishing at times (the Brahms 1 with Columbia Sym), and his Wagner: the Meistersinger overture and Tannhäuser Overture + Venusburg music with Columbia Sym are earth shattering.

    Klemperer was indeed variable. His Mahler 9 (EMI) counts among my favorites in any category, a towering, shattering experience.
    What is the problem with his Mahler 2? Both the EMI and the live issued by EMI are riveting experiences, imho. Klemperer was hit (Sym 6 & 7) and miss (Sym 8) with Bruckner, but he had some pleasant surprises in repertoire not usually associated with him: The Dvorak New World and Berlioz Fantastique are quite amazing. Then there is his Mozart, solid dignified, but always alive.

  6. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Jay

    Thanks for chiming in. I’m glad you are sticking up for both Klemperer and Walter. I find Walter awe inspiring in Mahler 4, but his 5th is really, in my opinion, a trainwreck much of the way. He just doesn’t seem to be able to achieve the tempo changes and relationships Mahler asks for. Anyway- I hope readers are encouraged to check out his recordings as a result of your comment. Same with Klemperer!

  7. Jason Quintana

    Klemperer was a giant. He should be on any top 10 list. Listen to the following if you haven’t :

    Brahms 2, 3 & 4
    Wagner Orchestral Chunks
    Bruckner 6

    These are recordings that are in the very top echelon of the German Romantic tradition and are equal or better than anything produced by Furtwangler, Karajan, Szell, Jochum, Kleiber or anyone else on your list.

  8. Garry Humphreys

    Absolutely fascinating series and I love your comments. Thank you! For me, a conductor for definite inclusion would be Rudolf Kempe: absolute clarity even in the largest works, a fantastic ability to balance wind chords by gesture alone (can be difficult, as you know!), and the most stunning stick technique. (The clarinettist Tony Pay told me that a player once explained his missing of an entry thus: ‘Oh, Mr Kempe, I was so fascinated watching you conduct that I forgot to come in!’) He was another who was adored by players – though said to have broken the second trombonist’s nerve when recording Scheherazade, and had eyes that made every individual player imagine he was looking at them in particular throughout the performance! At last there are a couple of commercial DVDs currently available. Regarded as a Bruckner-Wagner-Mahler-Strauss ‘specialist’ but very good with Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak; some very memorable Respighi, and some surprisingly idiomatic Elgar and Delius!

  9. Thomas Wilson

    Have I missed something or have you dropped Toscanini completely? As to the others–these have produced recordings. The pre-recording should include Mahler and Nikich(?)

  10. Andrew L

    I stumbled onto your outstanding blog and website searching for writings about Eugen Jochum, and enjoyed reading your listings of ‘top’ conductors far more than the Gramophone’s article listing their 20 ‘top’ conductors.

    While opinions are quite diverse, there are two conductors that were not mentioned at all whom I consider amongst the ‘top 20’ and two others who may not get the respect and consideration, but in my opinion deserver it. I find Kurt Sanderling to be one of the most underrated conductors. His Mahler is outstanding, particularly his recording of the 10th Symphony. Additionally, his recordings of the Shostakovich Symphonies and the Sibelius Symphonies, both with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra are for me amongst my favorite recordings of these masterpieces. His Rachmaninov 2 and Tchaikovsky 4 with the Leningrad Philharmonic are quite excellent as well.
    Antal Dorati is a conductor whose work I have come to tremendously admire in recent years. His Rite of Spring with the Detroit Symphony is my favorite recording of the Rite, and his Brahms Symphonies with both the London Symphony Orchestra and the Minneapolis Symphony (prior to being renamed the Minnesota Orchestra) are clear textured and taut rhythmically. They are classical in sound and scope and work marvelously.

    The two other conductors who were mentioned that I feel do not get the respect for the greatness they deserve are Karel Ancerl and Kirill Kondrashin. Both Ancerl and Kondrashin were masters of the 20th Century repertoire and their orchestras had sound qualities that are all but gone today. Both conductors made numerous recordings I consider definitive.

    With regards to Eugen Jochum, I heartily consider him one of the giants and is underrated as well. After listening to a lackluster performance of a Brahms Symphony, I then many hours of listening to nothing but Brahms orchestral music. The Jochum EMI recordings stood out to me amongst the pack and they stood out as absolutely magnificent!

    Thank you for your wonderful blog, of which I am a new reader.

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