The maestros that really matter in our lives

I’ve been thinking about the conductors who made a difference to my life – not on record, but in live performance, the ones who taught me to live in the moment, and transcend it.

These are the maestros who came to mind.

1 Otto Klemperer

2 Carlos Kleiber

3 Klaus Tennstedt

4 Rafael Kubelik

5 Leonard Bernstein

6 Georg Solti

7 Riccardo Muti

8 Riccardo Chailly

9 Mariss Jansons

10 Neville Marriner

The omissions? Karajan, Böhm, Ormandy, Maazel, Mehta produced off-the-shelf performances.

Gergiev in the early 1990s delivered some of the most exciting concerts imaginable, only to compromise his work with skipped rehearsals and dark political connections.

The list remains open. I hope to add more with the passage of time.

Kirill P and Mirga G could be contenders.



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  • John Rook says:

    Mirga? MIRGA??

  • Jonathan Dunsby says:

    If this is like /rec/music/classical/recordings group – let’s brace ourselves for endless posts of everybody’s favourites which will list practically conductor who ever lived 😉

    Meanwhile, I’ll just offer Kurt Masur.

    • steven holloway says:

      +100 And this is what brings out the worst in comment-makers on Youtube. I’m just going to stand on the sidelines and see if anyone mentions Barbirolli, Boult, Beecham or, more recently, Handley. The frequency with which British musicians seem to flee the minds of those who have opinions on any aspect of music, especially English opiners such as NL, is always notable, though perhaps especially in prevailing conditions.

      • Donald Hansen says:

        Thank you for mentioning the three Bs of English conducting. I too was hoping someone would. I could not, not having heard any of them in person. I do have almost every recording Boult made and while not all are top drawer in comparison with other conductors, they do what I call “satisfy” and in many cases, especially English music, much more than that. We can thank Lyrita for recording so many of them. And EMI too.

      • Donald Hansen says:

        Just remembered that I did hear Beecham. It was in San Francisco. One of his concerts was cancelled due to illness. There was no replacement and someone from the symphony stood on the front steps of the War Memorial Opera House and announced that Mr. Meecham was ill and there would be no concert, so go home. I felt like telling him that the name was “Beecham”, not “Meecham”, but let it go. At the other concert he (Sir Thomas) sat in a chair and cracked jokes to the delight of us all. Forgot what his program was.

    • Don Ciccio says:

      As it should because everyone grew in a different environment. Some, perhaps a majority of music lovers worldwide, grew up in provincial town with less than famous orchestras and conductors that were not “stars”, whatever that may mean. But these conductors and orchestra did instilled in that person the love for music. If that is the case, these conductors and orchestras mattered.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    What? No Masur? He was the best thing to happen to the NYPhil in a long, long time

  • Pedro says:

    Here we go again. Dead conductors heard live: Karajan, Böhm, Kleiber, Bernstein, Sanderling, Jochum, Maazel, Boulez, Kubelik, Celibidache. Living conductors heard live: Haitink, Barenboim, Gatti, Thielemann, Salonen, Gergiev, Muti, Mehta, Mirga, Blomstedt.

  • Robert Groen says:

    This is going to be a pointless summing up of individual preferences. So here are the results of the Groen jury:
    1. Haitink
    2. Van Beinum
    3. Monteux
    5. Jochum

  • Steve says:

    Günter Wand – especially in Bruckner 8 & 9 (Proms 1992/95 & 2001)

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Günter Wand

  • John de Jong says:


  • Falstaff says:

    Ever heard of a certain Claudio Abbado?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      yes. saw him many times.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Norman: you didn’t put him in either the positive or negative list. Is that how you feel about him? (How you feel is up to you, and I don’t wish to suggest your taste is right or wrong; personally I find your thoughts very interesting and I am curious to hear more).

  • Alan says:

    It’s all personal opinion, but I’ll put up Toscanini and Furtwangler.

  • Alan says:

    Hasty comment I made earlier…. did not register the “heard live” part of the post. Sorry…
    So I’ll mention Ormandy, Haitink, and Skrowaczewski.

  • Allen says:

    Reiner and Giulini. Unforgettable.

  • Pete says:

    Blomstedt, Haitink, Rozhdestvensky, Dohnanyi, Kempe, all heard live and 3 still alive.

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    Conductor that made a personal difference? For me, Mehta with the LA Phil. Nice performances of Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, etc.

  • But there are quite a number of recordings by Karajan which belong to the best available. I’m not drawing-up a list, but that should be clear for anybody who has listened to many of them – even if it is not always to everybody’s tase.

    • Tristan says:

      at least one who understands a bit more…
      Karajan comes immediately after Kleiber as the most fascinating in the last 25 years – just listen to the younger Karajan, simply amazing! Add Bernstein and Tennstedt plus for Italian repertoire Abbado, Muti and also Giulini. Don’t forget Abbado conducting Mahler in Lucerne, peerless! Only Kleiber surpasses even them in Italian but the little he conducted which is available: peerless all of them, Boheme, Traviata, Otello and Falstaff. Totally overrated was the cold Solti, Celibidache fascinating and best with Bruckner like Guenter Wand. AND people who heard Toscannini and Furtwaengler live can’t forget them either. Aren’t hose two the greatest ever?Voila, Carlos Kleiber for me definitely the most exciting I ever heard and nowadays only Petrenko might be in that league but definitely not the other most overrated Simon Rattle. He finally left Berlin! AND forget all the rest from Mehta to Maazel, Levine etc though they did some very good perfomances also. AND before the unbearable hype around Currentzis (exiting though!) there were the fanstastic apostolic Norrington, Gardiner, Hogwood and Pinnock for the early classic. Mozart thanks to them sounds exciting and real; also fantastic in it was Charles Mackerras.

  • Patrick says:

    Good list. I’d add Haitink and Boulez. Not sure who I’d drop, though….

  • Music Lover says:

    I can only think of Frank Shipway and Vladimir Jurowski right now. Two of my favourite conductors – and human beings. I feel so lucky I had the chance to know them both personally!

  • Sir Charles Mackerras – surely left off as an oversight?

    • Tom says:

      Yes. The best concert I’ve ever seen live was CM conducting Philharmonia in Beethoven 9th at Colston Hall (as a later sub – some, including me, would say ‘massive upgrade’ for Dohnanyi). In that one evening I learned so much about pacing and tension, which lessons have stood me in good stead ever since (and apply to opera conducting as well as concerts). Lovely man, too, who was kind enough to reply to a letter I wrote to him asking various questions.

      I’d love to have seen Kleiber and Tennstedt. If T was half as good live as his 1989 Mahler 2 concert recording suggests he must have been awesome.

      • Barry says:

        One of my biggest classical music regrets is that I started attending Philadelphia Orchestra concerts early enough to have seen Tennstedt a handful of times before he stopped coming. But I didn’t really know who the best guest conductors were yet and also hadn’t developed an ear for Mahler and Bruckner, as I would not many years later.

    • Monsoon says:

      Agreed. I saw Mackerras conduct an eclectic program of Wagner, Dvorak, Delius, and Elgar with the Berlin Phil. I don’t think many other conductors could have pulled that off. Great fun.

  • Sharon says:

    Once the the air clears about all the scandal, in 50 years history will judge Levine on his performance

    • Yes Addison says:

      …and find him wanting. I don’t expect his reputation ever to be what it was from the 1970s through the early 2000s. The large but undistinguished commercial discography will be the opposite of helpful to him.

  • Bruce says:

    Never seen, or ever likely to see, the conductors who have mattered most to me, in live performance.

    Unless you count playing for them, in which case there are several, but nobody famous.

  • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Love him or hate him, Sergiu Celibidache was a conductor who really mattered.

    I would also consider Carlo Maria Giulini and Claudio Abbado among those whom I have heard live, in concert, who created performances that mattered. Wolfgang Sawallisch mattered especially in the core German repertoire, IMHO.

  • Thomas says:

    1. Tennstedt
    2. Sanderling
    2. Haitink
    3. Giulini
    4. Harnoncourt
    5. Thielemann

  • gerhard schneider says:

    Szell Schuricht Kempe Klemperer Keilberth

  • Trevor S. says:

    Ok! Top-5 for me (the worst)
    1. Mirga
    2. Yannick
    3. Nelsons
    4. Dudamel
    5. Sokhiev

  • I had the honor of having worked with the first five.
    1. Bernstein
    2. Tennstedt
    3. Kleiber
    4. Böhm
    5. Mackerras
    6. Solti
    (Wish I’d seen Furtwängler, Celibidache, Karajan and Klemperer “live.”)

  • Caravaggio says:

    No Claudio Abbado? No Sinopoli? Major omissions, no? Anyway, no one can improve today, and I mean no one, on the exceptional Kirill Petrenko, a man with an uncanny ear reminiscent of Sawallisch and Kleiber fils. If in doubt, ask Munich and Berlin and you shall hear.

    • Petros LInardos says:

      I am glad you mentioned Sinopoli. I was looking forward to him becoming a wise old conductor in the mold of Mackerras and Wand…

      Arguably the quality of Sinopoli’s performances uneven. Yet at his best he could draw transcendental interpretations, especially in opera, e.g. Manon Lescaut. For those, he richly deserves to be remembered.

      • Olassus says:

        Sinopoli had no counterpoint, and that Manon Lescaut is an over-hyped horror. Try Muti on the same label (DG) for proper phrasing and good structure.

      • Novagerio says:

        I’m glad there still are a few admirers of Giuseppe Sinopoli. His Live performances of Mahler’s 5th and 7th were mind-blowing, despite the resentment and near ridicule he got from the London press. He was a true visionary, a master of orchestral sonorities and a sound magician, something you can’t exactly find today among some mediatically over-hyped “Podium lions” today.

  • Edward Friel says:

    So Karajan’s live performance of Mahler’s 9th is dismissed as an “off the shelf” performance. What nonsense! I fear your prejudice is showing.

  • Radames says:

    Dead or alive, my list of top 10 would be 1. Celibidache, 2. Furtwängler, 3. Tennstedt, 4. Giulini, 5. C. Kleiber, 6. Bernstein, 7. Kubelik, 8. Harding, 9. Blomstedt, 10. Abbado. Oh dear, most have passed away sadly …

  • J. Froberger says:

    Bryden Thomson.

  • Edgar says:

    Kirill Kondrashin, Gennady Rozdestwenskij…? I vividly remember concerts in Amsterdam with each conductor, after decades.

    • Barry says:

      Although I haven’t seen either of them live, this post reminds me that I forgot to include Temirkanov in my earlier post. I’ve seen him twice in Philadelphia and both concerts would probably rank among my top 10-15. He really drew a great sound from the Philadelphia.


    for me ARVID Jansons; Harnoncourt; Kurt Sanderling; Rozhdestvensky; Svetlanov; Elder; Bryden ‘Jack’ Thomson; Armin Jordan; Salonen; Tod Handley…..and as Tod cancelled many I’d have Andrew Davis and Bamert on stand-by

  • 1. Szell
    2. Bernstein
    3. Kertesz

  • Barry says:

    Sawallisch made the biggest impact on me among conductors I’ve seen live because I saw so many more outstanding performances led by him than by any other conductor; this during his time in Philadelphia, when I lived around the corner from the Academy of Music. I’ve mentioned on here before that there was about a 4-5 year period surrounding the turn of the century when I became a huge fan of the man.

    Other conductors who made a huge impression with one or two phenomenal performances that still stand out in my memory as major events were Abbado (Mahler 9 and LvB 6 with BPO), Rattle (Gurrelieder with Philly), Barenboim (LvB7 with CSO and Schubert 5 with VPO) and Nezet-Seguin (Verdi Requiem in Philly).

  • John P. Cloninger says:

    Mine are somewhat obscure since I don’t venture off the East Coast of the United States very much.

    1. Boulez
    2. Norrington
    3. David Alan Miller (as I went to college in the Albany area)
    4. Jens Nygaard (who ran the Jupiter Symphony in NYC until his death)
    5. Marriner
    6. Tate

    And not in that order…but I got some obscure ones in there…

  • BassOne says:

    Which all goes to prove what a senseless exercise this is.

  • Nigel Simeone says:

    OK – Those I saw in concert/opera whose performances made a significant difference (to me), in no particular order:

    a. Deceased but emphatically not forgotten:
    Charles Mackerras
    Adrian Boult
    Eugen Jochum
    Pierre Boulez
    Sergiu Celibidache
    Rudolf Kempe
    Carlos Kleiber
    Karl Böhm
    Lovro von Matacic
    Wolfgang Sawallisch
    Leonard Bernstein
    Leopold Stokowski
    Georg Solti

    b. Still active:
    Vladimir Jurowski
    Kirill Petrenko
    Bernard Haitink
    Jakub Hrusa
    Riccardo Chailly

    Plenty more possibilities, but enough already.

  • Mogens says:

    1 Günter Wand
    2 Herbert Blomstedt
    3 Georg Solti
    4 Simon Rattle
    5 Fabio Luisi
    5 Kurt Sanderling
    6 Kirill Petrenko
    7 Mariss Jansons
    8 Ivan Fischer
    all heard live and 6 still alive.

  • John Smith says:

    Karajan isn’t on this list, but Marriner is? Now I’ve seen it all… And yes – what about Abbado?

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    It surprises me that there is no mention (unless I missed it) of Sir Colin Davis. Has he been forgotten already? He is one of at least 23 “famous” conductors that I have heard in live performance. Also surprising to me is the absence (again, unless I missed it) of Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg, Charles Munch and Serge Koussevitzky whom I did not hear live.
    Rummaging my aural memory, it astonishes me that I still remember particular aspects all of the 23 conductors I have heard over these many years. So I guess they all mattered to me in their individual ways.

  • Julia Prola says:

    I wouldn’t miss out Giulini, or indeed John Barbirolli.

  • Martin Bookspan says:

    As a native Bostonian the first concert I attended was naturally by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, thanks to tickets supplied by the orchestra to the Boston Music School, where I was studying the violin. This was in the 1938-39 season. A guest conductor (and violinist) was in charge: GEORGES ENESCU. All I remember about the program was a work by a young Rumanian pianist and composer: DINU LIPATTI! And I remember it because there was a part for E Flat clarinet which I found hilarious……

    My next concert, the next season, found the orchestra’s Music Director on the podium: Serge Koussevitzky. 1940 marked the centennial of the birth of Tchaikovsky and Koussevitzky marked the occasion in three concerts which paired a Tchaikovsky Symphony with a Beethoven Symphony. My concert was Beethoven 4, Tchaikovsky 4.

    My life really began that day. I left Symphony Hall in a daze, and though I knew i was not going to be my generation’s Heifetz, I also knew that my life had to be in music. From that point on I buried myself in studying everything about music I could get my hands on, and I attended every concert of my newly-discovered wizard, Serge Koussevitzky.

    My life’s good fortune has turned out to be exactly the one I dreamed about in April, 1940. I have attended concerts by every major conductor of the last 75 years (with the exceptions of Mengelberg and Furtwangler) and have broadcast many of them. And I unhesitatingly enter my
    my vote for the greatest conductor in my experience: Serge Koussevitzky. I do so not only because of the many truly extraordinary performances of virtually the entire symphonic repertory that I heard him conduct. But also because of his herculean efforts on behalf of the living composer.

    This began in his young years in Russia when he formed a publishing house to print the music of emerging young composers, principally Stravinsky and Scriabin. Among his accomplishments during his four-year residence in Paris (1920-1924) he commissioned Ravel to compose an orchestration for Moussorgsky’s piano suite “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Among other Koussevitzky commissions in Paris was the Third Symphony of Roussel.

    While in Paris he had met the then 24-year old Aaron Copland, who was there studying with Nadia Boulanger. Instantly Koussevitzky commissioned Copland to compose a symphony, his first, which Koussevitzy premiered in Boston in his first season there. Some 20 years later he was to commission what turned out to be Copland’s Third Symphony.

    The die was cast. For the rest of his life, whether through the Boston Symphony Orchestra or his own
    Koussevitzky Music Foundation, he went on to commission some of the most important works of the 20th century. Among them are Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass. Prokofieff’s Fourth Piano Concerto, Hanson’s “Romantic”
    Symphony, Thompson’s Second Symphony, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Britten’s “Peter Grimes”, Martinu’s First Symphony, and on and on.

    And I’ve not yet even mentioned his founding in 1940 of the Tanglewood Music Center, one of the world’s premier
    summer music festivals and academies.

    Come to think of it, I’ll unhesitatingly name Serge Koussevitzky as the MOST INFLUENTIAL and IMPORTANT conductor of all time.

  • c bell says:

    One decade….Furtwangler Walter Beecham deSabata Enesco Barbirolli Markevitch C Kleiber Toscanini Schuricht

  • c bell says:

    The venues in the decade when
    i was present….Usher Hall Maida Vale RFH ROH


  • c bell says:

    The Kleiber in my list was Eric, in Wozzek.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    A very interesting list from Norman, which of course reflects his tastes.

    I am very curious about the omission of Abbado, and of Haitink. Both had extensive London careers and are usually well regarded by critics. I would love to understand what you don’t like about them.

    I suspect K.Petrenko will end up being a favourite too. And isn’t Pappano thought to be a terrific opera conductor who has been wonderful for the Royal Opera House?

  • Geoff says:

    Yes to Klemperer! Saw and heard him at the Royal Festival Hall in the 1950s never forgotten even when he could hardly walk on. My favourite lp is his Mono version of Beethoven’s fifth with his Philharmonia Orchestra. Still playing it these days, inspiring stuff.

  • Geoff says:

    Also HvK at the RFH in the 1950s too

  • Geoff says:

    Yes to Eric Klieber, way back when

  • John Mark Rozendaal says:


  • Mikael says:

    The conductor who made most difference in my life was Jascha Horenstein. I attended many of his London concerts, most memorable were Mahler (1, 3, 4, 5, 7 & 9), Bruckner (3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9), R. Strauss (Alpine, D&T) but there were many more.
    I also heard Szell do Mahler 6 and Knaben Wunderhorn in London and a Mozart Jupiter symph. that blew me away.
    Equally memorable were Klemperer, twice doing Beethoven, and Stokowski, once in Tchaikovsky 6.

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    Wow. You never heard Beecham, Stokowski, let alone Fruhbeck de Burgos, Celibidache or the great Russian conductors? If not, you should not be making such spurious lists. It damages classical music, which is an art, to treat it like sports with such ideas as their being “top” anyones, or top tens. Stop.

  • Simon Scott says:

    Thereby hangs a tale.
    A little boy was taking a stroll with his father and passing a graveyard he spotted a gravestone on which was engraved ‘ Here lies an orchestral conductor,a great musician and a humble man.”Daddy,how could three people fit into such a small grave?”.

  • Zacharias says:


    I would ask if you perhaps reconsider Maestro Karajan as Off-the Shelf? I myself have not seen him live, however several secondhand accounts close to me have attested that though Karajan certainly had his strengths and weaknesses, much of his oeuvre certainly was life-changing; notably his Wagner, Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, etc. Even his legato approach to Mozart and Bach was worth consideration and merit, in my humble opinion. Not to mention, his Operas during his time at the Wiener Staatsoper were reportedly grandiose.

    Perhaps could I get an opinion from you?

    Thank you!!

  • Simon Scott says:

    I don’t like conductors.
    Period. Simon Scott(violinist)

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    I wish I had seen live Klemperer, Szell and Kubelik, but especially Klemperer.

  • Vovka Ashkenazy says:

    Abbado, Ashkenazy, Barbirolli, Davis, Haitink, Karajan (despite his Nazi connections), Mehta, Previn, Salonen, and Solti would be my ten irreplaceables.

  • Peter Phillips says:

    I expect ridicule for this but the conductor whom I saw most and who thus introduced me to much of the canon at a impressionable age was Sir Malcolm Sargent, so he is an important figure in my personal musical development. But my list of those whom I saw and who made a difference would be in no particular order:


    Would love to have seen Bernstein, HvK, Furtwängler and Stokowski.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    I am surprised that Fritz Reiner , Artur Rodinzsky and Karel Ancerel have not received more commentary on this list.

  • CRMH says:

    Heard live at the ROH, C. Kleiber, Haitink, Solti, and especially, Sir Edward Downes.

  • Nicholas Oppenheim. says:

    I can’t believe that Giulini seems to have been overlooked! Nicholas Oppenheim.

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