The silliest of all conductor lists

The silliest of all conductor lists


norman lebrecht

March 08, 2017

The Gramophone website has published a list of ‘the 50 greatest conductors of all time’.

It is unsigned and may well have been compiled by computer on the basis of who made the most recordings.

Even so, the inconsistencies are staggering.

Not a single Finn in the 50. Nobody from the major school of modern conducting.

The plodding Jochum, Wand, Munch and Gardiner are included, but there is no heart-racing Klaus Tennstedt, no Erich Kleiber, no Van Beinum, no Horenstein, no Järvi – none of the Järvis – no Kondrashin, no Sanderling….. no sense at all to the selection process.

Most striking of all, the two most important conductors in Germany today – Christian Thielemann and Kirill Petrenko – are conspicuous by their absence.


This list appears to have been made by a small-minded, Little England robot.



  • Halldor says:

    He grumbles that a “greatest conductors” list doesn’t include Thielemann, the Jarvis or the all-but-unrecorded Kirill Petrenko – and yet we’re supposed to find the compilers of the list silly! LOL.

  • Fred says:

    Well, the gramophone has become a silly magazine, their listing of the greatest tenors was even WORSE

  • alec johnston says:

    I think it should be noted that the introduction list states: “Here are 50 of the best..” and not here are the 50 best. Though they should have put that in the title.

  • The Queen of Spades says:

    This should have been saved for April Fools Day in a few weeks time.
    What immediately becomes apparent when looking at this list is that it dates from ten years ago. Yes, from 2007. Consider just one example, the entry for Eugene Ormandy. It states:
    Born and trained in Hungary, Ormandy is famed for his long tenure at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra where he created a sound and style that is still discernible in the ensemble today, 21 years after his death.

    The problem is that Ormandy died March 12, 1985, so not 21 years ago, from today, but rather 32 years ago, next week to be exact!

    Looking at the entry for Claudio Abbado, one sees that there is no mention that he is no longer with us, of course not, as Abbado died in 2014, seven years after this “list” was compiled and published in The Gramophone.

    The question as to why there are no conductors from the Finnish School is easy to understand, Salonen and the other Finns were not yet that established ten years ago.

    It is appalling that the Gramophone is capable of publishing an old list, that they prepared ten years ago, trying to pass it off as current and actual, without any editorial oversight or responsibility. Not surprising, as The Gramophone is today and old dinosaur, like most of the classical music industry, filled with people who, for the most part, haven’t a clue as to what they are representing nor dealing with. The recent Deutsche Grammophon box to honour their house pianist, since the 70’s, Maurizio Pollini, was released on the market with his name spelled wrong on the packaging. This is no different than this Grammophone story, yet another example of a decadent and dying business in its last moments of life. As another sign of the times, Trump would say, “Sad!”

    • Jonathan Cross says:

      Err, it’s ‘Gramophone’, single M. No point in pulling others up on spelling if you yourself can’t spell.

      • Max Grimm says:

        Err and you, sir, should read more attentively. “The Queen of Spades” refers to the British magazine Gramophone (which she correctly spells with one ‘m’), as well as to the German record label Deutsche Grammophon (which she also correctly spells with a double ‘m’).

    • David Osborne says:

      Please refrain from quoting Trump.

  • The Queen of Spades says:

    Yet another proof that this is a recycled list, dating back ten or more years, that the Gramophone would like to pass off as actual and current. Have a look at the entry for Michael Tilson Thomas. It states:

    Celebrating 20 years at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas has held posts with the London Symphony Orchestra and founded the New World Symphony in Miami. He has recorded extensively for DG, RCA and the SFS’s own label.

    Michael Tilson Thomas became Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony in the 1994-95 season, so he is today “celebrating” his 22nd season as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

    Apparently the Gramophone just pulls up old biographies, some from ten years ago, some from two years ago and cobbles together a “list” that we are all supposed to believe. They edited a few, but missed most entries. So, the choice of conductors is not even the question here, but rather the sloppy, unprofessional work done in compiling this “list”.

    On behalf of all who read this that yearn for a classical music world that is professional, competent, knowledgeable and worthy of the music and artists that they represent, join me in boycotting all of these charlatan publications, recording companies and management firms who do more to discredit classical music than actually make it interesting and help it to flourish. Don’t buy or read the Gramophone, don’t purchse or even look at what the “classical” labels are doing. The inmates are running the asylum, much as they are in the political sphere. It has to stop!

  • Nik says:

    The inclusion of Maazel, Levine and Gergiev seems to confirm the suspicion that this is about the quantity, rather than quality, of output.

    • erich says:

      …and the inclusion of Dudamel alone disqualifies the list from being taken seriously.

      • Theodore McGuiver says:

        Absolutely. That and the lack of Erich Kleiber. JEG’s inclusion might have been down to the journalist wanting to keep all his teeth. Some entries are questionable, but enough of the true greats are indeed there.

  • The Ghost of Karlos Cleiber says:

    Oh come on, it’s just Gramophone’s equivalent of clickbait.

    But Norman: if you think Gunter Wand was plodding, you need your ears syringing. He’s the best conductor of the Austro-German core repertoire of at least the last 30 years, and I’d take him over Karajan, Klemperer, Barenboim, Jochum, Giulini, Rattle, Toscanini, Abbado, Haitink – near as dammit all of the post-war ‘big beasts – in that repertoire.

    Just listen to his studio Beethoven cycle if you don’t believe me.

    Not sure you could really describe Gardiner that way either; if being one of the leading lights in the HIP movement and widely regarded as one of the most significant performers of Bach out there (to say nothing of pretty successful in all sorts of different repertoire, very often in an instantly recognisable style) isn’t enough to make a list like this then goodness knows what is.

    The most surprising inclusion is Dudamel, on whom the jury (other than his very well-oiled publicity machine) is still very much out; to say nothing of it being at least 20 years too early to tell how he truly measures up.

  • Amir Kessner says:

    The only silly thing here is calling somebody else’s list “silly”.

    I’m totally bored by Klaus Tennstedt, Erich Kleiber, Van Beinum, and Horenstein, and THRILLED my much of Munch and Gardiner.

    Maybe Thielemann should be in, but Kirill Petrenko has not proved himself in recordings, and the Gramophone is mainly/only about recordings.

    This is not my list, and I’d definitely replace many entries, but SILLY it is not.

  • Walter says:

    I cancelled my subscription after 30 years when they started producing all this ‘Hall of Fame’ rubbish. I would second all that ‘Queen of Spades’ states here. Are there any good review publications left?

  • Warren says:

    While I find the Gramophone list outrageous, I find Jochum, Wand, Munch and Gardiner are anything but plodding. That this Gramophone list also omits Ancerl and Talich is outrageous! Admittedly Jochum and Wand would be on my list, but surely most of the conductors on that Gramophone list would absolutely not be on mine. Gergiev over Temirkanov, Svetlanov, Golovanov? Really? Thielemann would definitely not be on my list. I am eager to hear Kirill Petrenko.

  • Doug Sheldon says:

    How great to have a controversy over this list! There is no perfect list, nor ‘correct’ list. People measure and judge with different criteria and their is no perfect or universally accepted criteria. There is only “taste” and prejudice and neither is perfect either. Let the discourse continue! It is good for our bilious juices!

  • Ungeheuer says:

    Credit where credit is due: At least they didn’t name the hack Marco Armiliato. But the inclusion of Gustavo Dudamel among such august names caused me to nearly lose my breakfast.

  • William Hicks says:

    While most on this list are worthy entrants, a few are laughable choices and by no means qualify as “great;” what is appalling is the lack of inclusion of Pierre Boulez, whom the impossible to please Otto Klemperer called the greatest musician/conductor of our time,” Guido Cantelli, Hans Knappertsbusch, William Steinberg, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Artur Rodzinski, Felix Weingartner, Erich Kleiber, Yevgeny Svetlanov, Ernest Ansermet, Kurt Sanderling, Nikolai Golovanov, Victor De Sabata, Ataulfo Argenta, Jascha Horenstein, Rudolf Kempe, Paul Kletzki, Karl Muck, Vaclav Talich, Karel Ancerl, Thomas Schippers, and Hermann Scherchen. Was Arturo Toscanini on this list?

    • James says:

      Oh but it is good to see William Steinberg included. His Boston SO concerts
      of the early 1970s, when my early manhood was forming, remain the very best
      ever for me. He introduced Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner, Hindemith and Reger
      to me in Symphony Hall. Thus the green twig was bent. Glory hallelujah!
      Tis a grand thing to have such fine memories now, now as one’s dotage is
      creeping up….

      • Ruben Greenberg says:

        James: When Steinberg became principal conductor of the BSO, he was ill, elderly and past his prime. Nevertheless, he brought off many great and memorable performances and you were fortunate to attend them.

  • William Hicks says:

    P.S. Oops! I missed Boulez, who IS on the list, and Toscanini is also there; well, that makes sense that they would be included, but to ignore many or all of the others I named on my previous post makes no sense at all.

  • John Kelly says:

    “The plodding Munch”???? Are you insane? You can not have heard any of his live BSO concerts, available from a variety of sources including the BSO themselves. The man was incendiary! Then again, Norman, you apparently don’t like Debussy, so I give up.

    Agree with you about missing out on Tennstedt. A great musician and one of the greatest conductors I ever heard. Had an argument at Carnegie Hall with a listener who overhead me mutter “he’s just great” after a Bruckner 7 with the Phillies. “Good………not great”. But it turned out his list of “greats” was very short indeed, featuring only Toscanini and Szell!

    • Ruben Greenberg says:

      I’ve never spoken to a musician that didn’t say that Munch was the most inspiring conductor he or she ever worked with, and not just in Debussy.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Lists like this are stupid. The line that Furtwangler made a series of “almost legendary” recordings of Beethoven is inane. They ARE legendary. And The Dude will never match them.

  • Brian says:

    What strikes me is it’s a list of 50 almost all white men. They couldn’t find a single woman?

    Such rankings raise the broader issue of how you judge greatness. Is it purely a measurement of interpretative talent or should various extra-musical qualities be considered (audience outreach, innovative formats)? The list doesn’t really say what the criteria were.

  • Bill Ecker says:

    These “of all time” subjective lists are ridiculous and pathetic. As this is a British publication, Barbirolli and Boult? Really? Missing Mitropoulos over that pair? So as we are saying “of all time” how about Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt? On an all time list, Hans von Bulow, Hans Richter, Felix Mottl, Felix Weingartner, Felix Mendelssohn, Fritz Steinbach, Hans Konwitschny…..Dashing Danny, really? John Eliot Gardiner really? Sorry, fine conductors but not fit to shine the shoes of some on my list. How about the controversial Karl Muck? What about the legendary Bruckner and Brahms conductor Oswald Kabasta, or Ernest Ansermet…..far greater than many on this list. Just saying, rant over.

    • Bill Ecker says:

      I completely missed Gustav Mahler from my list!

    • Ansermet, Ancerl, Kondrashin, Monteux, Toscanini, Klemperer, Munch, Monteux, Szell, were all great genius conductors unlike the tenth-rate charlatans like Rattle and Dudamel. Rattle was a construct of EMI, The Gramophone Magazine and BBC Radio 3. Stewart Brown, of Testament, stated to me (in front of a witness, Geoffrey Diggines) that Rattle could not read the score of the Brahms Violin Concerto and bridged-skipped a few bars of the opening. Also we have empirical evidence on video showing us clearly that Rattle cannot conduct Sibelius or Mahler or even the Borodin 2nd Symphony as his EMI recording testifies. How has Rattle go away with it for so long now?

  • Raymond Clarke says:

    Gramophone used to be my favourite magazine when I subscribed from 1977-1982; I still look through the hundreds of back issues on my shelves with interest and I always pay attention if there’s an informative review by a commentator with professional integrity – there used to be many such writers. The intelligent advocacy and enthusiasm extant in the articles by those open-minded critics has, over the decades, fired me with enthusiasm to purchase thousands of LPs & CDs which I might otherwise have passed by, so I’d acknowledge that the magazine stimulated my musical awareness and assisted my musical education. From its first issue in 1923 Gramophone made a positive contribution to musical life for about sixty years, and the lively debate within its pages remains well worth reading for anyone interested in the reception history of recorded music.

    As regards the current state of the magazine, much of the writing is merely ill-informed pontification which attempts to masquerade as authoritative judgement. There are of course still some experts writing for Gramophone, but they are outnumbered by journalists who have almost no knowledge of the back catalogue, who cannot assess the significance (or otherwise) of new recordings within the context of previous ones of the same repertoire, and whose main priority is to distort the slant of their pretentious reviews so as to contrive a pretext to deliver some punchy memorable phrases to draw attention to the ‘impact’ of their own writing. The reviews are littered with factual mistakes and there are frequent indications that CDs have been reviewed without being listened to in their entirety (such as major editing mistakes passing without comment).

    One cannot take the magazine seriously anymore; even the front covers, overloaded with meaningless soundbites, betray a superficial approach. But my respect for the fine writers and their valuable content in the issues published before the mid 1980s remains.

  • Peter says:

    Having Dudamel in, but not Pekka-Salonen and Thielemann, is indeed silly.
    Dudamel maybe in 20 years.
    Also agree about Sanderling.
    What about Temirkanov, Blomstedt, Kempe?
    Now these lists are nonsense anyway. So is the Gramophone magazine of today.

    • nvdl Linden, Neil van der says:

      The Gramophone may be preparing a classical music Brexit, with all its predilection for British conductors and conductors who worked in Britain. Mackerras and Hogwood really are not to be counted in the top 50, regardless of all their virtues. Rattle is not a remarkable generic conductor. And even Gardiner should maybe be 51, not in the 50. No Finn, so many Russians missing like Kondrashin, Rodzesvenski. And Knappertsbusch..
      Maybe Pretre could have been there? Thieleman should come before Dudamel, despite the fine things he is doing. Chung? And I would have loved to include Alsop…
      Of course many of the pre-recording area are missing, like Bulow, Levi.. But then they include Nikisch.. And exclude Erich Kleiber, who is mostly pre-recording era.

  • jasper says:

    Hard to believe that Kurt Masur was not included on the list.

  • jaxon says:

    A magazine like Gramophone – knowing who its readers are – publishes a list like this exactly so they can get a sputtering, incredulous reaction, and therefore an extended conversation about Gramphone Magazine. Why how could you DARE publish a list that excludes the incomparable Von Mermelstein! And not a single Ruritanian? Are they mad?

    You would HOPE that a savvy observer of the arts would not fall for such a trick, but then, you would hope a lot of things.

  • herrera says:

    Which orchestra came out on top with most conductors from the list?

    Berlin? Surprisingly, Chicago did pretty well, with 11 from the list holding official titled positions –

    “Music Director”: Kubelik, Reiner, Solti, Barenboim, Muti
    “Principal Conductor”: Haitink
    “Principal Guest Conductor”: Giulini, Abbado, Boulez
    Ravinia (summer home) “Music Director”: Ozawa, Levine

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    De gustibus non disputandumst.

  • Peter Phillips says:

    If we accept the premise of post modernism then the concept of “great” is surely redundant. That apart, the list has a certain political bias. The omission of all but one Soviet conductor has been remarked upon above (unless you include Jansons, who is actually Latvian) but even more noticeable is the dearth of names from the DDR, with the exception of Sanderling. Abendroth? Kegel? Konwitschny? Suitner?

  • Gil Gross says:

    The list is wondrously strange. Maazel? What Symphony exists where you ever went “I wonder how Maazel will do it?” I don’t want to waste time taking down all the people I don’t think belong on this list, but calling Munch plodding is just plain odd. Is there another Munch out there? What performances of his seemed plodding? That was just a weird thing to write.

  • musicologyman says:

    The absence of Richard Wagner and Hans von Bülow from a list of the 50 greatest conductors (presumably because they never made recordings) demonstrates what an absurd, ignorant exercise this is.

    Still, based on the famous account of Wagner’s performance of the conclusion of Parsifal in Bayreuth in 1882, I wonder if NL would have found him “plodding” as well.

    • David Osborne says:

      Sorry can I just ask which account you are referring to? Serious question, I know Wagner took the baton and conducted from the act 3 transformation music to the end and have read reports that it sounded very different from Levi’s interpretation. I wasn’t however aware that a more detailed description existed. That sounds fascinating!

  • David Osborne says:

    Fair list, agree with Norman about Tennstedt. Here are another two that should be on anyone’s list- Josef Krips and István Kertész.

    Perhaps it would be more fun to compile a 50 most overrated list? There are at least two on there who would be on mine…

  • David Eastwood says:

    Surely the list begins with Mendelssohn, then Mahler, and then we can start arguing.

    • Peter says:

      Surely. Of course. Without any doubt. It must be so. There is no other possibility. It’s been found written into the foundations of Solomon’s Temple.

  • sl says:

    I am glad that at least Celibidache and Mravinsky are included here. Among Toscanini and Szell certainly the best orchestral trainers that have ever been. But many names in this list could be easily substituted with greater ones. I especially miss Knappertsbusch and Erich Kleiber. And how about the fantastic Carl Schuricht? The man who conducted with ever more fire and energy the older he got.

  • Yehuda says:

    Really, the infantile starry-eyed vularity of this matter is something to behold.
    Anyone can make a list…a list is a list is a list…and so what?
    As is usual with such silly know-it-all displays of temperment, the one thing that matters, the music, is…where? Lost somewhere between the name-dropping
    and the spelling police. Ah, great and noble art, indeed.

    • David Osborne says:

      Speaking of spelling police, I don’t have the temperment for all this vularity either Yehuda. But what can you do?

  • John says:

    Sillier yet are the posters here who get all bent out of shape that their favorite conductors weren’t included on this admittedly silly, ten-year-old list.

    • David Osborne says:

      And silliest of all are the fun police who somehow don’t realise that lists are just that-‘fun’. Nobody is getting bent out of shape, however discussing who should have been there but missed out, and who does not deserve their place can provide hours of harmless amusent… and yes I know I just spelt amusement wrong but I’ll leave it there just to show what an insouciant I am.

  • Guillermo García Calvo says:

    Rudolf Kempe?
    Hans Knappertsbusch?

  • Paul Davis says:

    I stopped reading the Famagroan Mugazine years ago. Can’t think why anyone would pay attention to their list or opinion these days; there’s hardly anyone left who knows anything.