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