Top 10 Famous Conductors in Classical Music and Opera April 02 2021
Few professions elicit more wonder, awe, and mystery than that of conductors, with only a small group of extraordinary individuals in history having dedicated their lives to this noble craft.
Amongst the most curious facts about conducting, we can mention that even amongst classical musicians and regular concertgoers, the orchestra conductor craft still remains shrouded in a thick mist of doubt and uncertainty regarding what its purpose, need and actual utility are.
Nevertheless, some especially remarkable figures have achieved a level of fame due to their interpretations, educational labor and even political views which has even led them to develop a popularity in the classical music world and recognition amongst the general public. Here is our top 10 list.
A foundational figure and one of the first major international conductors of the
modern era, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, born in Parma in 1867, is widely considered one of the most acclaimed musical figures of the twentieth century boasting a staggering almost six-decade career over which he produced countless recordings, premiered major works of the repertoire and almost single handedly shaped the performance practice of the first half of the twentieth century.
Amongst his most relevant musical relationships we can mention his spells as director of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the NBC Symphony. During these tenures as principal conductor he developed another important source for his popularity and the spreading of classical music, namely, his numerous radio and television broadcasts.
Toscanini’s early training as a highly accomplished cellist led him to develop a highly intuitive knowledge of the string section. Furthermore, his training as a pianist and a prodigious memory allowed him to learn and memorize large scale operas like the Wagnerian and Verdian repertoires with ease and speed. His conducting and rehearsal technique was considered severe, with a large emphasis on rhythmic accuracy without losing expression.
Aside from being a major conductor, Toscanini boasted a profound relationship with the legendary Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, a connection which would lead him to lead important premieres of the composer’s work and become a champion of his oeuvre.
Sir THOMAS BEECHAM
Sir Thomas Beecham is undoubtedly one of the central figures of British music in the twentieth century. Having lived between 1879 and 1961, Beecham was responsible for being the founder of both the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, to this day still major orchestras.
Curiously enough, although Thomas Beecham was a highly educated Oxford man, he possessed no formal training in music, a fact which did not stop him in the slightest from developing a major international career and almost single handedly shaping the face of modern British performance.
Beecham’s vast and eclectic repertoire included works by English, French and German composers with a special emphasis on not so well-known works. Amongst his most important accomplishments we can mention his British premieres of major works of the likes of Wagner’s Meistersingers and Strauss’ Elektra and Salomé.
Thomas Beecham also produced a large body of recordings in which he championed the music of composers like Mozart, Delius and Berlioz.
Wilhelm Furtwängler was a highly revered German conductor
born in 1886 who by holding outposts as conductor of the most prestigious German opera houses and orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden and the Leipzig’s Gewandhaus orchestra, essentially dominated the German musical scene between 1920 and 1945.
Coming from a family of intellectuals, Furtwängler had an exemplary upbringing which led him to receiving his musical education from masters such as Josef Rheinberger and Felix Mottl.
Nevertheless, although transcending in a musical level, Furtwängler’s conducting technique has usually been described as clumsy and stiff, with a very limited range of motion and a small repertoire of gestures.
Of course, said limited technical ability didn’t limit him in producing some of the most important recordings of central works of the repertoire such as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Despite being a central figure in the history of conducting and an extraordinary musician, Wilhelm Furtwängler’s name is to this day still a source of profound controversy and division regarding his relationship with the Nazi party.
Austrian-born conductor Karl Böhm is universally hailed as a leading figure in the performance of the German orchestral and operatic repertoire, with his recordings of Richard Strauss’ works sometimes being hailed as definitive due to the quality of the interpretation and his close relationship with the composer which led to a deep understanding not only of the works at hand but Strauss’ original intentions.
Böhm’s early musical education was marked by the Vienna conservatory where he studied under Eusebius Mandyczewski, a major pedagogue and music editor who shared a lifelong friendship with Johannes Brahms. His repertoire included a strong emphasis on the German repertoire, with Mozart, Wagner and Strauss being especially common choices.
Amongst his most common musical associations we can mention his championing of Mozart’s operas in the Metropolitan Opera, his Bayreuth 1962 debut, his numerous appearances in the Salzburg Festival and of course, his profound relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic of which he would become the “Ehrendirigent” loosely translated as honorary conductor.
HERBERT VON KARAJAN
A titanic figure of the twentieth century, Austrian-born Herbert
Von Karajan is widely considered one of the most important and famous conductors of all time.
His long and deeply impactful career shaped the face of twentieth century performance practice and set the standard for the modern vision of the conductor figure, with Karajan being perhaps one of the first conductors to truly be a “major celebrity” in every possible sense of the word.
Karajan’s longest lasting musical relationship and perhaps most influential partnership were his thirty-five years leading the Berlin Philharmonic. Three and a half decades over which conductor and orchestra joint in a single communion, explored the vast majority of the key repertoire producing countless recordings under the Deutsche Grammophon record company many of which to this day remain unsurpassed in quality and sophistication.
Although his career is filled with an almost unlimited number of achievements and accolades, Karajan’s greatest achievements, aside from his musical interpretations, are the profound impulses he made for the recording and media production industry around the world of classical music.
These impulses are so influential that they even get to the point in which his work led to the development of several new audiovisual recording techniques, practices and most importantly, set the standard for what classical music recordings would forever be like.
Being one of classical music’s most famous conductors and controversial figures, Sergiu Celibidache inspired as many passionate detractors as followers. The Rumanian-born musician achieved notoriety after becoming the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra between 1945 and 1952.
His conducting style and musicianship owe a great deal to his early training and interest in mathematics, philosophy, and Zen Buddhism. This interdisciplinary background with a strong core in reflection and meditation led Celibidache towards developing a highly unique performance style which he passionately shared over his lifelong interest in education.
Celibidache’s last great musical relationship was with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra with which he produced some of his most memorable recordings including his legendary interpretations of the nineteenth century’s large symphonic works by composers like Bruckner, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.
Hungarian-born and later British nationalized conductor Sir
Georg Solti (1912-1997) is a central figure in the history of the recorded era and a monumental character of twentieth century music having led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to its current status as a major American Orchestra over his massive tenure between 1969 and 1991.
Being a disciple of masters such as composer Bela Bartók and Erno Dohnanyi, Solti had an exemplary training which led him to being not only a highly accomplished conductor but also a successful pianist and composer in his own right.
His musical style has been described as intense and fiery, with his early recordings being especially accurate of said description. His sharp and rhythmically precise technique led him to produce very refined and polished versions which in a sense renewed and washed over the hyper romantic tempi of the early twentieth century performance practice that the previous generation had crafted.
Amongst Solti’s most relevant accomplishments it is imperative to mention the fact that he was the first conductor to ever record a complete studio version of Richard Wagner’s colossal Ring Cycle between 1958 and 1965 for the Decca label.
Although every single conductor in this list is an exceptional musician, few of them hold as many accolades and honors as Leonard Bernstein. A major conductor, composer, educator and pianist, Bernstein was the first major American-born and educated conductor.
His work spanned over 5 decades in which he led the world’s most important orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic through recordings which to this day are considered essential to any collection.
His Harvard education with key figures such as Walter Piston and Edward Hill. It also included a large focus on the study of aesthetics with David Prall which led him to a lifelong multidisciplinary outlook on music.
Having developed an intimate relationship with legendary American composer Aaron Copland, throughout his life, Bernstein became a champion of American music being, amongst other achievements, largely responsible for the divulgation of the works of previously neglected figures such as Charles Ives.
Undoubtedly one of his most important endeavors, his educational perspective made Bernstein lead a series of highly successful concerts for youth in which alongside the New York Philharmonic he would present different works of the central repertoire and ideas for music appreciation to a wider public with the cycle eventually becoming the most successful program of family concerts ever conceived.
Son of Austrian-born conductor Erich Kleiber, Karl Kleiber or as
he would be known after his stint through the city of Buenos Aires, Carlos Kleiber, is widely considered one of the most talented, controversial, eclectic and mysterious conductors of the second half of the twentieth century.
Although he is primarily known as an Opera conductor, his work in the symphonic genre, especially in the Beethoven symphonies, is equally formidable, with his few recordings being considered almost universally, referential.
Amongst Kleiber’s most relevant qualities it is undoubtedly important to mention his virtuosic, almost dance-like conducting technique. Said technique based on large lyrical movements, yet capable of the softest pianissimos, made him especially apt for the large scale works of the late-romantic tradition, with Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier being one of the cornerstones of his repertoire.
Different from most other conductors in this list, Carlos Kleiber didn’t possess a colossal repertoire or a public eye career to the level of a Karajan or Bernstein.
On the contrary, he represents, perhaps better than any other conductor, a particular school of thought in which he would perform the same pieces over long periods of time developing a profound understanding of the work which is seldomly rivaled.
Italian-born conductor Claudio Abbado was a major figure of Italian music during the second half of the twentieth century and one of the most successful and famous conductors in history. His long tenures at the head of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Milan La Scala theater earned him a colossal reputation as a towering character both in the symphonic and the Operatic repertoire.
His early musical training in piano and composition was conducted in the Milan Conservatory followed by conducting masterclasses with Hans Swarowsky, which led to eventually winning the Serguéi Koussevitzky competition at Tanglewood, an event which jump-started his career.
Owner of a refined baton technique, Abbado possessed an elegant repertoire of movements which he employed alongside his characteristic gravitas to tackle a broad repertoire from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck with absolute ease and conviction.
OTHER IMPORTANT CONDUCTORS
We can´t avoid mentioning other orchestra conductors that did not make it to our top 10, but are definitely worth mentioning as among the very best: Bruno Walter, John Barbirolli, Fritz Reiner, Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink, Pierre Monteux, George Szell, Neville Marriner, André Previn, Pierre Boulez, Valery Gergiev, Colin Davis, Adrian Boult, Victor de Sabata and others.