The 20 Greatest Conductors of All Time
Who are the maestros who inspire the maestros themselves? We invited 100 of today's leading conductors to cast their vote for the greatest conductors ever
https://www.classical-music.com/features/articles/most-memorable-proms-history-our-top-picks/Who needs conductors? The question is not quite as fatuous as it might seem.
Many leading orchestras or choirs, and a fair number of less accomplished ones too, can quite easily navigate their way through even the most complex works without anyone waving a baton in front of them. Where the maestros earn their corn is in turning a workaday performance into something potentially special. Their knowledge, preparation, artistic vision and leadership are all important, but above all, they are there to inspire.
But which of their peers and forebears are the conductors themselves inspired by? We put this question to 100 of today’s best, inviting them to name three each.
Of the names that emerged, some are the great pioneers whose research into and championship of their chosen field, notably early and contemporary music, has opened up whole new worlds of both repertoire and performance style.
Then there are those who have built up great orchestras over the years, winning admiration and fondness in equal measure.
Others still are great communicators, while some simply make one go ‘wow’ with their insight of interpretation and power of performance. We counted up the votes of our 100 conductors, and present the Top 20. The results are fascinating…
Listen to tracks from the winning conductors here:
20. Sir Charles Mackerras (1925-2010), Australian
Born in New York, brought up in Australia, it was after moving to Prague to study with Václav Talich that Charles Mackerras fell in love with Czech music. In particular, he became a lifelong advocate of Janáček, conducting the UK premiere of Kátya Kabanová in 1951.
Known for his eye for detail, exuberance and phenomenal musical memory, Mackerras was also at the forefront of the authentic performance movement. Equally at home conducting Handel as Wagner, other musical enthusiasms close to his heart included Mozart and Sullivan.
‘I owe Sir Charles Mackerras a huge debt. He was one of the very few conductors generous enough to treat his colleagues not as rivals, but as co-interpreters, with whom to impart and exchange personal findings, hints, tricks, or shared enthusiasms.
'Over the years he would often invite me to his home in St John’s Wood to discuss scores (Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Schumann, Dvorák,Martinu) or to give me a ‘driving lesson’ in whichever Janácek opera I was conducting at the time. A great guy who is only just beginning to get posthumous recognition.’ – Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Elisabeth Söderström etc, Vienna PO (Decca 475 8227)
19. Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) British
Thomas Beecham is widely remembered for his acidic wit, which belies his importance to Britain’s musical scene.
Though essentially self-taught, he founded two major orchestras – the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic – vastly raised the standard of British opera productions, and as a great lover of French repertory championed Berlioz, and (stylistically not quite unconnected) Delius.
Grieg Peer Gynt
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI 965 9342)
18. Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013), British
In some ways, it’s hard to reconcile the admired, avuncular Sir Colin Davis we know today with the brilliant but difficult firebrand who first came to notice in the late 1950s – but then come moments such as the recent live recordings of Nielsen’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies to remind us that, on stage at least, the fire and passion have never really disappeared.
In the many years between, Sir Colin has enjoyed a string of important posts, not least as principal conductor of the LSO for 11 years, excelling in composers such as Mozart, Elgar, Sibelius and, most outstandingly of all, Berlioz.
Berlioz The Trojans
Ben Heppner, Michelle DeYoung etc, London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live LSO 0010)
17. Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988), Russian
Mravinsky inherited the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in 1938 from the Austrian conductor Fritz Stiedry, and was largely responsible for maintaining the Austro-German tradition through the fraught years of Stalin’s Terror.
He also conducted the hugely successful 1937 premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a performance that almost certainly saved the composer’s life, and went on to premiere five more of his symphonies. We named Mravinsky one of the best Shostakovich composers ever
Mravinsky’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s work – powerfully expressive yet with a masterful sense of structure – was legendary.
Tchaikovsky Symphonies Nos 4-6
Leningrad PO (DG 477 5911)
16. Pierre Monteux (1875-1964), French
Early in his career Monteux conducted several premieres for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes including the Rite of Spring: while the audience rioted, Monteux coolly conducted that complex score to the end.
Toscanini considered his baton technique the best he had ever seen, and Monteux shared with the Italian the belief that the composer’s score was sacrosanct – with the difference that Monteux was dearly loved by his players. His conducting pupils include Sir Neville Marriner, André Previn and David Zinman.
London Symphony Orchestra (Eloquence 476 8472)
15. Bernard Haitink (1929 - 2021), Dutch
Bernard Haitink’s career was launched in 1956 when he stepped in for an indisposed Carlo Maria Giulini and conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Just five years later he became the orchestra’s youngest-ever principal conductor.
A believer in close collaboration with few ensembles rather than fleeting appearances with many, Haitink’s lengthy stints with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden have made him a firm fixture in the UK’s musical life.
A master of symphonic architecture, he is perhaps best known for his Mahler and Bruckner, though he has won plaudits for much beyond.
Beethoven Symphonies Nos 4 & 8
London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live LSO087)
14. George Szell (1897-1970), Hungarian
Famously dictatorial and autocratic, Hungarian émigré George Szell bullied, cajoled and coached the Cleveland Orchestra from post-war provincial obscurity to one of the world’s great virtuoso bodies.
A formidable orchestral trainer with a clear, incisive stick technique and what some judged the best left hand in the business, Szell was also respected for his cultured musicality, though he was undoubtedly objectivist in his musical inclinations. Rare recordings with European orchestras show him at his most spontaneously expressive.
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1
Clifford Curzon, LSO (Decca 478 1386)
13. Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963), Hungarian
Had he lived to become a ‘Grand Old Man’ among conductors, Hungarian-born Ferenc Fricsay, who died of cancer aged just 48, would surely be mentioned in the same breath as, say, Arturo Toscanini.
A superb orchestral trainer and musician of great integrity, who himself studied under Bartók, he was at the height of his powers in the mid-1950s when he forged his reputation with a number of German orchestras.
Masterful in the music of his teacher, and also Beethoven and Mozart, his Berlin Phil recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth is outstandingly blazing and dramatic.
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Archipel ARPCD0200)
12. Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970), British
‘Glorious John’. Vaughan Williams called Barbirolli that, and although Sir John successfully conducted the great orchestras of London, New York, Berlin and Vienna, it’s an appellation merited mainly for his work with Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra, which he rebuilt from wartime decimation to international stature.
String phrasing of great warmth and expressivity was a particular hallmark, Barbirolli himself being originally a cellist. He always conducted ‘con amore’, not least in British music, which he championed indefatigably.
Elgar Symphony No. 2
Hallé Orchestra (EMI 968 9242)
11. Sir John Eliot Gardiner (b1943), British
Any conductor who can persuade players and singers to join him on a year-long, 40,000-mile tour performing just one composer – as ‘John Eliot Gardiner did with his Bach Pilgrimage in 2000 – must have a certain something.
Long before that epic journey, Gardiner had established himself as one of the leading pioneers of the period instrument movement, founding three ensembles in his drive towards presenting the music of the Baroque period in a new light.
Best known for Bach and his contemporaries, he has also made acclaimed discs of repertoire reaching well into the 20th century.
JS Bach Christmas and New Year Cantatas
Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra (Soli Deo Gloria SDG 137)
10. Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005), Italian
With a naturally aristocratic sense of style, Carlo Maria Giulini also brought to the works of composers he loved a sense of refinement, and even spirituality, that raised him above other conductors of his time.
Starting out as an orchestral violist, he played in the Accademia di Santa Cecilia under many leading conductors before transferring to the baton following the liberation of Italy during World War II.
After the war he worked regularly with Italian radio; then, encouraged both by Toscanini and Victor de Sabata, he succeeded the latter as La Scala’s principal conductor in 1953.
He remained there only three years, leaving because of audience behaviour, but maintained important relationships with Maria Callas and directors Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli, whose integrity and sense of artistic vision he shared.
Created in close harness with Visconti, the production of Verdi’s Don Carlos he conducted at Covent Garden in 1958 instantly passed into operatic legend as an ideal collaboration that enhanced the work’s status.
A strong association with the Philharmonia Orchestra and appointments with the Chicago Symphony (1969-72) and Los Angeles Philharmonic (1978-84) proved memorable, though it is arguable that Giulini was temperamentally unsuited to formal positions.
In 1968 he abandoned opera, feeling unable to maintain the standards he aspired to in the rough and tumble world of the theatre, though he returned to the form in 1982 with Falstaff, both in Los Angeles and London. His finest work, both in symphonic works and opera, forms a shining beacon of authority without ego.
‘As apprentice conductor at the Paris Conservatoire in the early ’90s, I had the privilege to play Verdi’s Requiem at the piano for Carlo Maria Giulini during his rehearsals with soloists and chorus. I remember vividly his clear eyes, which seemed to have seen the most beautiful sunrises, and also his amazingly soft old-man hand-shake.
'Breathing music with him, I received the most important lesson I ever had: to believe in the miracle of sharing music together! In his apparently very simple gestures, there was not even an atom of doubt, he was fundamentally sure that everybody would give him the best they ever did.’ – Stéphane Denève
Mozart Don Giovanni
Eberhard Wächter etc, Philharmonia (EMI 966 7992)
9. Pierre Boulez (1925-2016), French
Return to the pounding rhythms of the Cleveland Orchestra’s 1969 Stravinsky Rite of Spring recording, and you begin to hear why Boulez was renowned for combining intensity with pinpoint precision. On the podium he shunned flamboyance in favour of a cool, analytical conducting style, in which minimal gestures get straight to the sound he wants.
Historically, too, no one has done more to simultaneously promote and determine the direction of music: after World War II, he organised concerts in Paris with Domaine Musicale concert society; he was a hugely influential voice of the avant-garde movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and a leader at Darmstadt; in the ’70s, he opened new music up to wider audiences as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and music director of the New York Philharmonic, with informal concerts in London and New York; he also set up IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris, unveiling the science of music with his Ensemble InterContemporain.
As a conductor, Boulez explored and inspired in equal measures, teaching leading orchestras around the world about 20th-century music and building audiences for works by the Second Viennese School, Bartók, Stravinsky and Mahler.
Ravel Piano Concertos
Krystian Zimerman, Cleveland Orchestra (DG 449 2132)
8. Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), Italian
Through his much vaunted attention to the composer’s score – which he considered sacrosanct – his single-mindedness in pursuing seriousness and high standards, his strength of personality, and not least his status as a US national figure as conductor of the NBC SO (1937-54), Toscanini became one of the musical legends of the 20th century.
A consistently hard worker, and fierce with musicians who gave less than 100 per cent, he rose to prominence in Italy with premieres of works by Puccini and his contemporaries (notably La bohème), as well as championing Wagner, Verdi and Debussy.
Given the top job at Italy’s leading opera house at 31, he swept like a whirlwind through La Scala, revolutionising its operation much as Mahler was doing for the Vienna Opera. He resigned from La Scala twice, both times on matters of principle – one artistic, the other political. His opposition to Fascism, not only in his homeland but also in Germany and Austria, was vocal and unswerving.
America beckoned, first in the case of the Metropolitan Opera (1908-15, where he initially shared conducting duties, uncomfortably, with Mahler), then at the New York Philharmonic (1928-36), and latterly (1937-54) with the NBC Symphony, formed especially for him and giving him a national platform.
Debussy La mer etc;
NBC Symphony Orchestra (Guild Historical GHCD 2271-2)
7. Wilhelm Furtwängler (1896-1954), German
‘He was the opposite of a gramophone record’. Hans Keller’s typically provocative epitaph on Furtwängler pithily encapsulates why, in an age obsessed with technology and the instantly gratifying soundbite, the great German conductor remains a crucially important figure in the history of music-making.
Furtwängler hated the artificiality of recording, preferring visceral contact with a live, flesh-and-blood audience. If his conducting technique was often imprecise (as many claimed it was), it was deliberately so, as he sought to elicit from his players not clinical precision but the ‘melos’, or specific emotional atmosphere, of a particular work or passage.
Footage of him on the podium reveals a figure totally immersed in music, conjuring sounds rather than conducting them, twitching, swaying, hovering and convulsing, not for personal effect, but in unselfconscious response to the narrative drama unfolding in the orchestra. Frequently branded a subjectivist, he understood and articulated the formal structures of the great 19th-century Austro-Germanic repertoire as no other conductor, shaping works with an utterly compelling architectural logic.
For Furtwängler, music had the power to challenge, invigorate and spiritually change the individual listener. That is why he stayed in Nazi Germany conducting his beloved Berlin Philharmonic when many say he should have departed: he thought his fellow-Germans needed the civilising influence of great music more than ever.
Many have imitated him (Daniel Barenboim in particular), but few if any have matched his extraordinary combination of intellectual grip and emotional intensity.
We named Wilhelm Furtwängler one of the greatest Beethoven performers ever
Wagner Tristan und Isolde
Kirsten Flagstad, Ludwig Suthaus etc, Philharmonia (EMI 585 8732)
6. Sir Simon Rattle (b1955), British
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a decent band when Simon Rattle became chief conductor in 1980. When he left 18 years later, it had become a world-class orchestra.
Rattle’s stringent standards combined with his irrepressible energy and sheer enthusiasm for the repertoire he championed (he never seems to conduct anything unless he is fully convinced of its worth) not only won over the critics but also persuaded Birmingham’s council to provide the orchestra with a world-class concert hall, so making the city a major cultural centre.
Rattle had been talent-spotted early, even before he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, when he organised a student performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. He has since been most closely associated with Mahler, yet he has demonstrated a wide-ranging grasp of repertoire, from stage works by Rameau and Mozart (he has often conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) through to modern repertoire.
Rattle has been a staunch champion of contemporary composers, most famously Nicholas Maw (whose Odyssey he made a precondition of signing to EMI), while also raising the profile of such underestimated composers as Szymanowski, Grainger and Gershwin.
It is a measure of his rapport with the musicians he works with that in 1999 he was elected by the members of the Berlin Philharmonic to succeed Claudio Abbado as their chief conductor in 2002. In 2008 they voted to keep Sir Simon Rattle for a further decade, but in 2015 the London Symphony Orchestra announced that the maestro would be returning to Britain as their music director in 2017.
Mahler Symphony No. 2
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI 345 7942)
5. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016), Austrian
One-time cellist with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, pioneering Baroque specialist and renowned conductor in just about every musical style, including Johann Strauss operetta and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Harnoncourt was a musician who refused to be pigeon-holed. He was an ace of all trades, the sworn enemy of routine and provocative to the last.
In the musical world he was much admired both by peers and disciples for his fearless quest for musical truth – his founding, in 1953, of the period-instrument ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien and his lengthy project with Gustav Leonhardt to record all of JS Bach’s cantatas, begun in 1971, were both moments of fundamental importance in inspiring a generation of historically informed performance scholars and enthusiasts.
But Harnoncourt was no zealot. In fact, he proved to be the most pragmatic of conductors. Who would have guessed, listening to those early Telefunken discs of orchestral Bach on authentic instruments, with their unvarnished, vibrato-free sound that Harnoncourt would fully embrace the sonority of the modern symphony orchestra? But a late Harnoncourt performance does not go in for luxuriant string tone, so honeyed warmth is not on the agenda in his interpretations of the Romantics.
This certainly pays off in his Beethoven performances, which have a refreshingly lean sound, while Brahms, Dvořák and Bruckner, too, appear with greater transparency.
Dvořák Symphony No. 9
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Warner 3984 25254-2)
4. Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989), Austrian
Karajan was unquestionably the most famous conductor of the second half of the 20th century. Even those of a non-musical bent recognised his name. For many, he ruled the classical music world and his concerts and recordings represented the peak of excellence.
Also never to be forgotten was his directorship of the Salzburg Festival, often controversial but always imaginative. Karajan has been accused of megalomania, with justification, but he knew what he wanted and how to get it, and his cunning at internal politics was second only to his musical skills.
Although he embraced new technology and, on hearing digital recording for the first time, famously proclaimed that ‘everything else is gaslight’, his Beethoven recordings with the Philharmonia from the 1950s are both fiery and noble whereas his final ones, although pristine, are comparatively bland.
Whatever one feels about Karajan’s ultimate status in musical history, there is no denying that, at his best, he was a phenomenal musician, not only on his home turf with Wagner, Bruckner and Richard Strauss but also with the orchestral works of Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, the operas of Verdi and Puccini and much else.
He left a vast recorded legacy to be wondered at and argued over. Though he conducted little ‘modern’ music’, his set of recordings of the Second Viennese School is a thing of wonder, both awesomely powerful and astonishingly beautiful, while he was also rather good at ‘lollipops’: listening to his Philharmonia recording of Waldteufel’s Skaters’ Waltz one witnesses a little miracle.
Sibelius Symphony No. 4
Berlin Philharmonic (DG 457 7482)
3. Claudio Abbado (1933-2014), Italian
Taciturn, placid, shy and private, Claudio Abbado was an unlikely Italian and an even less likely great conductor. He detested overt shows of power. He mumbled in rehearsal. And he never lost his rag. Taken as a boy in Milan to watch Toscanini rehearse, he remembered thinking how ‘horrible’ it was when the maestro screamed at the orchestra.
Yet this gentle, self-effacing man held the most important conducting positions in Europe. Early in his career he was made music director of La Scala, where he mixed scintillating Rossini with boldly revived rarities.
Then came memorable stints at the helms of the LSO, Vienna State Opera and Berlin Philharmonic, in between which he founded two of the world’s finest youth orchestras.
Cancer struck in 2000 and after half his stomach was removed his days seemed numbered. What followed, however, was arguably his finest achievement: the formation of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
Handpicked from his friends in top orchestras, it has given a series of performances and live recordings that many music-lovers rank as the most sublime they have ever heard.
Abbado’s interpretations of Mahler and Bruckner symphonies, or epic operatic explorations of spirituality such as Fidelio or Parsifal, now seem to reach far beyond the realms of music. They are journeys of the soul and affirmations of humanity. Abbado was a subtle and sophisticated conductor, but can also be counted as one of the most profound visionaries of our age.
Mahler Symphony No. 3
Lucerne Festival Orchestra (Medici Arts DVD 205 6338)
2. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), American
Perhaps no one has possessed a more comprehensive collection of the traits conductors view as assets in their profession: Leonard Bernstein was almost impossibly musical, talented, versatile, creative, handsome, energetic, inquisitive, intelligent, charismatic and articulate.
Those who encountered him knew they were in the presence of a force of nature; love him or hate him, Lenny was difficult to ignore.
His celebrated last-minute debut with the New York Philharmonic (1943) ultimately resulted in a tenure there (1958-69) during which he championed the work of American and avant-garde composers, reached out to audiences through the televised Young People’s Concerts, and helped a troubled decade to find itself in the music of Gustav Mahler.
Before this stint his life involved composing (Candide, West Side Story), to which he later added mentoring young conductors and cultivating an international reputation (Vienna became a second home).
Bernstein’s strength was his emotional connection with the music he led; given his larger-than-life personality, his performances often contained exaggerations that perturbed critics (toward the end, his tempos could become indulgently lethargic), and one seldom came away from a Bernstein performance with the impression that he had polished the orchestral textures and sonorities to the extent that many of his colleagues considered desirable.
Instead, his was a flamboyant, sincere, persuasive style. Others might offer more scintillating detail and specifically musical insight, but Bernstein energised his listeners, prompting them to revel in the sheer joy of being alive.
‘Leonard Bernstein made music accessible to so many young people, and I myself used to be besotted with his Harvard Lectures. They were fascinating and eye-opening for me as an aspiring musician. Then I later came full circle and had lessons with him at Tanglewood: what an inspiration!
'But for me, it also has to do with what he achieved with regards to Mahler. For him to bring about a formidable revival in this such important music is absolutely epic – that was the milestone that Bernstein was able to give us.’ - Markus Stenz
Shostakovich Symphonies Nos 1 & 7
Chicago SO; (DG 477 7587)
1. Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004), Austrian
To hear or, far better, to see (there are quite a few DVDs) Carlos Kleiber conducting is always an exciting, inspiring, moving experience. It makes you want to find out how many recordings of him there are.
And you immediately get a shock. In his 74 years, he conducted one Haydn symphony, two by Mozart, four by Beethoven, two by Schubert, one by Borodin, and two by Brahms. And he accompanied a concerto on only one occasion, performing Dvoπák with pianist Sviatoslav Richter. In the opera house Kleiber conducted two operas by Richard Strauss, one by Weber, one by Wagner, one by Berg and three by Verdi.
Like all great musicians, he adored the music of the Strauss family (Johann and relations), and conducted Die Fledermaus and many waltzes, polkas and marches. Apart from a very few other pieces that he had a fleeting relationship with, that was it. Yet Claudio Abbado called him ‘the most important conductor of the 20th century’, and it seems that many of his colleagues agree.
The decisive factor in Carlos Kleiber’s life was his being the son of a great conductor, Erich, whose repertoire was far larger than his son’s, and included almost all the works the latter performed. Erich left recordings of them, which Carlos listened to obsessively, convinced that he could never do as well.
Erich was strongly opposed to his son becoming a musician, so Carlos tried studying chemistry, loathed it, and turned to music early on. He followed the traditional path of the great German conductors, working in small opera houses and learning his trade out of the limelight.
When he moved to Stuttgart in 1964 he had his breakthrough. There is a wonderful DVD of him rehearsing the Stuttgart Radio Symphony in two overtures (see top right), turning a collection of bored musicians into smiling collaborators: he seduces everyone by his boyish manner and his almost continuous commentary on the music as he rehearses it; and he looks happy and intense throughout. At the end we see the overtures – to Der Freischütz and Die Fledermaus – played to an ecstatic audience.
During the late 1960s, the 1970s and ’80s, all the videos of him are like that. He rarely conducts in the ordinary sense at all. What he does is much more choreographic, though it is his arms rather than his legs that dance.
He swoops, sometimes stands motionless in a dandyish pose, even laughs, sometimes closes his eyes and listens in rapture. To see him conduct Brahms’s Second Symphony or Beethoven’s Fourth is enough to make you levitate. Plácido Domingo, who regards him as the most musical person he has ever met, says that when Kleiber was conducting an opera everyone was looking at the pit, not at the stage.
Yet he conducted just 96 concerts in his life, and about 400 operatic performances. Many conductors would notch up those totals in less than a couple of years. He rehearsed so exhaustively that at the performance he could improvise, but with precise effect. That is his unique secret – the music really does seem as if it is being composed as it is played, and played immaculately.
The only trouble with such perfectionism is that there is the constant fear that you can’t keep it up, and Kleiber’s joy in music-making soon turned to continuous anxiety, so that he cancelled many concerts, and only gave one or two a year in the decade before his last one, in 1999. The trajectory of his career is similar to Maria Callas’s.
They both concentrated on a small number of works of which they gave performances which will almost certainly never be equalled. Their dedication to music became a torture, their fame something to be looked on almost with horror. Thank heavens they left such incomparable legacies.
Brahms Symphony No. 4
Vienna Philharmonic (DG 457 7062)
R Strauss Der Rosenkavalier (DVD);
Gwyneth Jones etc; Bayerischen Staatsoper (DG 073 4072)
Rehearsal and Performance (DVD);
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (Arthaus Musik 101 062)
This article first appeared in the April 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine.