VFTP exclusive- The real Top 20 of Conducting. Part Four: 16-20

Well, here we are at last- the final five conductors in our “Real” Top 20 of conducting.

Part I is here, II here, III here and my feature on Conductor Composers is here.

A bit of background on process. I made my basic Top 20 list in about 25 minutes. The first 15 names on this list appeared here just as I wrote them down after that careful period of consideration.

However, now that we’re near the end of our arbitrary number of slots, the decisions are getting tougher. I suppose I’ve decided the most important goal here is not to be fair or realistic, or even to be completely honest about who my favorites are, but simply to give readers the most interesting list I can. With that in mind, some obvious choices have been bumped aside in favor of more marginal, but hopefully more interesting figures.

The person cut from the final five was the toughest decision to make. Toscanini. Of course, like Szell (who knew enough about Toscanini to poach most of his handpicked principals at the NBC Symphony for Cleveland, although Reiner got Frank Miller to lead the cellos in Chicago), he certainly is more than important enough to be included. For me (and this is my blog, after all), his mainstream repertoire hasn’t stood the test of time- it is as a Verdi and Respighi specialist that he will be always be remembered best. (FYI- Szell was nearly cut in favor of both Tennstedt and Kondrashin, and I reserve the right to change my mind on that final slot).

Arturo Toscanini

Pity poor Toscanini- it would break his heart to know that he makes this list not for his Beethoven or Wagner, but for his Italian repertoire. The greatest Verdian ever, and his Respighi will never be beaten. I listened to his Pines of Rome with the NBC Symphony 187,429 times on LP as a kid, always incredibly loud (okay, I made the number up, but it was a lot).

PROS- Amazing rhythm, especially in Verdi. Great orchestral trainer- may have been a tyrant, but somehow got the musicians to believe they were doing something truly unique and important.

CONS- Didn’t seem to have any interest in quality of sound at all. Passion and intensity? Yes.  Clarity, ensemble and intonation? Yes. Beauty, color,  resonance, bloom? No way. Not the Brahms and Wagner conductor he wanted to be because of it.

So, of the final 5, 2 were added in final deliberations- Georg Solti, and Vaclav Neumann. Others who almost, almost made it include  Talich, Svetlanov, Ancerl, and I still wish I had Tennstedt on here.

16. Leopold Stowkowski

I really can’t believe Stowkowski didn’t make the BBC Mag list- his name and Mitropoulos were the two I was most surprised to see were missing . Asahina and Suitner are more connoisseurs’ conductors, but Stokowski was one of the giants of all time, both artistically and commercially. Are we just punishing him for his sins? Yes, he re-wrote things, but Szell and Toscanini did too- they just hid their tracks and largely got away with it.

PROS- The sound. The hands. The ability to get orchestras to play completely beyond themselves, to listen and to create multiple levels of color. Did more premiers than any other conductor in history, including Boulez. My conducting teacher, Gerhard Samuel, played under Stoki often in the Minneapolis Symphony when he was associate concertmaster and associate conductor there in the Dorati years. Gerhard, whose own conducting was, at its best, more in the Walter Weller/Bernard Haitink school, always said Stoki had the greatest technique of any conductor he had played for or watched. He rehearsed even less than Beecham, who also worked there a lot in those years, but the concerts were always superb: “he was so clear and so in control, that anything we already knew needed no rehearsal at all. All the phrasing, balance, color and flexibility was just there in his hands.”

CONS- Okay, his re-write of the ending of the Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet is an abomination.




17. Otmar Suitner

Right up there with Adrian Boult and Jochum for most under-rated conductor of all time. Unlucky to spend his best years in Berlin in Karajan’s shadow. Suitner is a bit of a German Kondrashin- a very no-nonsense interpreter, who got a very beautiful and distinctive (and authentically German) sound out of all his orchestras.

PROS- The quinisential Suitner sound and interpretation are focused, honest, energized but stable and unfussy. His technique is beautifully simple and looks just like the orchestra sounds. An amazing Dvorak conductor.

CONS- Could have used a little bit more charisma, as a musician as well as a market force. One wishes he’d had better orchestras for some of his recordings- his Brahms 1 on CD suffers from very shaky woodwind and horn playing, but the cycle gets better and better and ends up rather cosmically good.


18.       Vaclav Neumann

Back in the day, if you wanted to hear a whole range of cool and kickass Czech music, you had to search out the beautiful looking and sounding LP’s from Supraphon. In my youth, most of those were of the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Vaclav Neumann.  Neumann didn’t conduct a great deal in the West, so to many of us, he was a name on a record without a visual identity to compete with the Bernstein’s, Karajan’s and Solti’s. This list needed a Czech Phil music director on it from back when it sounded like no other orchestra on Earth. It could have easily been Vaclav Talich, for many collectors and critics the even greater Czech maestro, or Karel Ancerl. I picked Neumann for his incredible technique, his inspiring and engaged rehearsal technique, and the fact that he not only maintaind the sound culture of the Czech Philharmonic as its MD, but also the Leipzig Gewandhaus, which also had a unique sound culture in those days.

19.       Sir Georg Solti

Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin during his tenure with the Chicago Symphony, Solti was like the neighborhood “world’s greatest” conductor. It was a completely accepted as a truism in the upper Midwest in those years that not only was the CSO under Solti the greatest orchestra in the world, it was probably the greatest orchestra in history. Imagine my surprise when my travels took me out into the wider world where opinions of Solti were far more mixed. He was certainly a polarizing figure- “screaming skull’ to some, a god to others. At the end of the day, few have ever done so many different things so well- Mahler, Beethoven, Mozart, Bartok and Wagner. I’ll never forget hearing Elgar’s Falstaff under him on the radio- I thought my stereo was pumping mysterious green light out of the speakers it sounded so good. A friend in the Chicago Symphony who was there for his whole tenure summed it up pretty well: “Say what you will about Solti- every concert with him was an event. Something memorable happened at every concert, and that is a shitload of concerts and a lot of different repertoire.”

Pros- IMO a surprisingly nimble and elegant Mozartian.  Understood the vitality of rhythm better than just about any conductor. Brought a metronome to a coaching with Bryn Terfel- that is someone who believes rhythm is important! Especially adept at handling huge forces and driving organizations to new heights. I also believe he conducted some important Wagner recordings. 🙂

Cons- Not a great sound poet or colorist. Sometimes it seems like he and the CSO brought out the worst in each other- it turns out that combining the most powerful orchestra on earth with the most excitable conductor in history is sometimes a very good thing and sometimes a bit too much. Possibly the strangest and most awkward looking technique of any major conductor. He actually grew a bone spur on his right collarbone which was caused by his technique.


20.             George Szell

Szell is like Carlos Kleiber without the smile and the insecurity. A great, great musician, but would have been greater if he could have just let go a bit more of his need to control everything. His Brahms is astounding, especially as a counterbalance to Jochum’s freedom and Karajan’s glorious slop- Szell shows that precision matters and that structure can be a positive thing. Wand did the same thing, but let his orchestras play with a more inviting sound. Szell’s greatest accomplishment is not any particular recording or chunk of the repertoire- it was the Cleveland Orchestra, which held onto his unique sound concept for many years after his death.

PROS- One of the greatest orchestra trainers of all time. Best Walton conductor ever. Tons and tons of classic recordings. A truly deep musical thinker. A great Brahms 4 conductor. Still inspires awe and fear in his colleagues who knew him in Cleveland, but less admired where he worked as a guest.

CONS- He would have been an even greater conductor outside Cleveland had he just let players relax and play and not tried to control everything. There is a sense of constriction in his performances that can be a barrier. Gerhard, my teacher mentioned above, often compared Szell with Stoki- but Szell didn’t come out very well. Gerhard would often punctuate a story about a Stoki triumph with “completely the opposite of Szell, who had to rehearse and drill every detail in rehearsal until it was encased in concrete. The concerts always fell apart because he had hammered any and all flexibility out of us, then he would get inspired and try to do something different and couldn’t show it, and we were never sure whether to rely on what we saw in the concert or what he said in the rehearsal.”

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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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14 comments on “VFTP exclusive- The real Top 20 of Conducting. Part Four: 16-20”

  1. Lisa Hirsch

    I must disagree about Toscanini not caring about the quality of sound: contemporary commentators, I have read (probably in Harvey Sachs’s books), commented on the beauty of his orchestral sound. What he did not care about was his sound on record. He wanted his recordings to reflect what he heard from the podium. Between the lousy sound of NBC Studio 8H, lack of stereo (except for his last concert), and that idiosycratic preference about what the recordings should sound like….we don’t know what his orchestra really sounded like.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Lisa

    To be fair, you are certainly right. That said, I don’t think the evidence from other recordings in places like Carnegie or London shows that he was all that consistent at getting a beautiful, blended, multi-textured sound there either. Likewise, compare the few Stoki things with NBC in the same spaces, and Toscanini’ sound still comes off has harder, drier and less varied. On the other hand, he was Toscanini! I must have listened to his Pines of Rome 1000 times at least.

  3. Elaine Fine

    Keep a lookout for Stoky stories that are coming out in memoirs of people who worked with him, especially “The Viola in My Life” by Bernard Zaslav (which will be available in late summer). I know about the stories because I edited the memoir. The Stoky and Szell stories (all of them are true) will certainly be of interest to you. Leon Fleischer has an interesting take on Szell in his memoir. Szell actually liked Fleischer!

  4. Peter

    Very glad Neumann made the cut. As a young man, hearing Neumann conduct’s Brahms 4 made me realise that being a good conductor was not just about raw charisma and power, but having a deep understanding of the music.

    As for ,Tennstedt I sang in the chorus on his recording of Mahler 8. Now he was a conductor whose presence alone could raise the temperature inexplciably. His favouriote word was “unbelievable” – a stock reponse to almost anything which had impressed him, although equally applicable to calamity, I suppose.

    Great choices Ken – probably you would choose different names on a different day of the week, but what a way to educate people about the conductor’s esoteric art!

  5. Erik K

    As the other member of the Otmar Suitner International Fan Club, I’m delighted to see him make the cut. I hope this blog post is the impetus for a growing global reputation for him.

    Let it be known that I almost coughed up coffee when I read that he was the German Kondrashin…Kondrashin of course being my second favorite conductor. My girlfriend will be thrilled to know I like stable and unfussy…;-)

    Amazing list…loved every minute!

  6. Tom Chambers

    I’m gratified to see Szell made the cut!
    I’m not surprised that Koussevitzky didn’t make your top-20, and since you’ve already listed enough other candidates to fill out nos. 21-30, please tell us–what do you think of Koussevitzky?

    I’m no expert on him, and I’ve read he had no conducting technique to speak of, and as far as I can recall the only performances of his I’ve heard (other than Egmont on the DVD) were 40 years ago on second-hand 78-rpm vinyl played over a cheap phonograph–but even then his BSO sounded gorgeous and his Sibelius was more compelling to me than Maazel’s.

  7. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Tom
    Koussevitzky had his limitations, but I think he’s pretty under-rated today. The Egmont in the “Great Conductors” video is very exciting, even if the technique looks odd. My teacher, Gerhard, studied with him and knew him well, so most of what I’ve heard about SK come from Gerhard.

    Gerhard said SK was, as people say, not a great technician, and that he couldn’t teach at all. However, he had an incredible ear for sound and was a dogged and inspiring coach. Gerhard often told a story about SK spending over 2 hours on the great cello tune in Francesca da Rimini with the BSO at Tanglewood. He said he would never forget the sound of that cello section by the end of the rehearsal. There are some incredible recordings- I have a Prokofiev 5 which is off-the-charts good (and you need some kind of technique for that piece). The legacy of the commissions alone would make him a candidate for the list

  8. Kenneth Woods


    Well, I owe you a debt for encouraging me to get to know Suitner’s work better. It’s great that so much more is available now. Readers- there is a wealth of Suitner on YouTube now, and that gives a much greater sense of who he was than the CDs do by themselves. Rob Cowan of Radio 3 is a big Suitner fan, too. That gets us to 3 in the club

  9. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Elaine

    Can’t wait to read that book! Let us know when it is out. There is a lot of potential in those personalities

  10. Kenneth Woods


    Glad you agree about Neumann. I still feel guilty about Tennstedt. Deep down, he is closer to my idea of what a great conductor is than Szell. That said, the enduring character of the Cleveland orchestra through the Dohnanyi years is too impressive to overlook….

  11. David

    Hi Kenneth,

    I just want to thank you for your wonderful list, with which you accomplished just what you set out to do, namely provide not only complimentary but also critical observations as to why and how these conductors are to be considered great. Among other things, you got me to turn some more serious attention to Eugen Jochum, the Icon box set of whom is on its way, thanks both to this post and to your in-depth review on the set. Likewise with Carlos Kleiber.

    I hope you continue writing such posts, as you represent the most non-critic-like art music critic I have yet found. In other words, you actually make individual but qualified observations, a definite departure from the typical critic’s frustrated quackery, that certain mark of one critiquing another whom he wished he could be.

  12. Albert Sanchez Moreno

    Actually, Bernstein cared a great deal about sound quality. One of his most fascinating (and entertaining) Young People’s Concerts is a program called “The Sound of an Orchestra”, in which he shows the viewer how NOT to play Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, and thoroughly denounces the idea that an orchestra should have its own sound; instead it must have the sound of the composer whose work the orchestra is playing. He then shows the different techniques and shadings involved in playing Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Gershwin, and Copland, leaving no doubt as to his ability to know how to differentiate between composers’ styles.

  13. Tim Cunningham

    Thanks a hundredfold for mentioning Neumann! I actually played for him in the early 80’s when he conducted the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra in an amazing Dvorak concert. He somehow was able to get the orchestra to do what he wanted just by singing the music to us in a very unmusical voice.

    And on Szell and his legacy in Cleveland. In the late 70’s the CO under Maazel came to Toronto and gave an utterly out-of-this-world performance of Schumann’s Second Symphony which, especially the slow movement, haunts me to this day.

  14. Matt S.

    Hello – thank you for the rundown. My brother had asked me last night whether Ormandy makes the cut on top 20 conductors. I had said just barely in my estimation (can a list be more subjective??). I then started compiling my own list and most of your choices were there. I am especially miffed when Boult is left out of he critics top lists (BBC, what were you smoking that day). His Vaughan Williams interpretations alone put him very high in my list of baton twirlers. I also place Solti very high, even his “bad” Wagner, e.g. Tristan, is pretty good to my ears.

    Only additions I would consider are perhaps Reiner (too populist?), Gergiev, and especially Dorati. Dorati is one who has left us with a wonderful collection of recordings over the years. He had a large repertoire but does not have much recorded by way of opera. Perhaps Minneapolis didn’t have the pedigree of Philadelphia at the time? Dunno. It was before my time.

    Regardless, great list.

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