Who are the best conductors of all time? We’ve discussed and debated and compiled our list of the greatest conductors featuring legendary maestros including Herbert von Karajan and Carlos Kleiber, and today’s stars including Gustavo Dudamel and Sir Simon Rattle. Scroll down to discover our selection of the top 20 best conductors.
20: Bruno Walter (1876-1962), Germany
A great conductor in an era of great conductors, Walter exemplified the very best of the 19th century Austro-German tradition of music-making. His recordings of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner are on an exalted plane, but his empathy with the symphonies of Brahms and the operas of Wagner was especially significant. Then there was his friendship with Mahler which gives his recordings of the composer special authority. Among these is his account of Das Lied von der Erde with Kathleen Ferrier (with whom he formed a close relationship) and Julius Patzak. “The greatest thing in music in my life,” said Walter, “has been to know Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order.” The emotional quality and lyrical strength of the music were of greater importance to him than technical precision, as he led orchestras (principally in America after 1938) with firmness and gentle persuasion.
Brahms: Compete Symphonies
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 36-41
19: Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005), Italy
Few who have seen the famous 1964 film of Giulini in London’s Royal Festival Hall conducting the ‘Dies Irae’ movement from Verdi’s Requiem will ever forget it. The intensity, precision and monumental conception have rarely been surpassed. He began life as a viola player playing under Furtwängler, Klemperer, Richard Strauss and Bruno Walter but after the Second World War (he went into hiding because of his anti-Fascist beliefs) soon came to prominence as an opera conductor, succeeding de Sabata at La Scala in 1953. Conducting Visconti’s production of Don Carlo at Covent Garden established his international reputation. His collegial approach to his players, Italian passion and the emotional warmth of the sound he conjured up, helped ensure that his many recordings made for a variety of labels and orchestras stand the test of time.
Mozart: Don Giovanni
Verdi: Don Carlo
18: André Previn (1929-2019), Germany/America
Previn first came to international attention as a conductor when he was appointed chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1968. By then he had enjoyed a successful career in America as a jazz pianist, film composer and arranger (he had been awarded four Oscars). It was a controversial appointment given his relative inexperience with a major orchestra, his youth, versatility and the apparent ease with which he discharged any musical task. Previn’s media savvy and his immensely popular television programmes on classical music led to huge ticket and record sales. A notable series of recordings of Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov, Walton and Shostakovich symphonies provided a firm rebuff to those who liked to label him a lightweight. After the LSO he took over Pittsburgh (1976-84), Los Angeles (1985-89) and was chief conductor of the Royal Philharmonic from 1985 to 1992, as well as posts in Oslo and Tokyo.
Vaughan Williams: Complete Symphonies
Korngold: Film scores
Walton: Symphonies No. 1 and 2
17: Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016), Germany
Harnoncourt, one of the best conductors, began his professional life as a cellist (he was an orchestral musician for 17 years) playing under the likes of Karajan, Erich Kleiber, Ormandy and Carl Schuricht. In 1953 he formed the group Concentus Musicus Wien with the purpose of exploring the world of Baroque music and performance practice. Convinced that the music should sound more brilliant than in current performances, Harnoncourt led the group in its 1957 debut and thereafter, making a memorable series of recordings of Bach, Rameau, Telemann and the like. His approach to his players was one of mutual respect, just as his preoccupation was the striving for equality in orchestral timbres. His work has had a huge influence on many present-day musicians.
Bach: St Matthew Passion
Beethoven: Complete Symphonies
Monteverdi: Orfeo, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, and L’Incoronazione di Poppea
16: Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), Holland
Mengelberg was appointed permanent conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in 1895 and remained there until 1945, making it one of the greatest orchestras in the world. Noted for championing the works of Richard Strauss and Mahler, he conducted every great orchestra in the world. Many of his recordings are electrifying. Strauss dedicated Ein Heldenleben to Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw, while in 1920 he led a festival in which all of Mahler’s symphonies were performed, the first time the composer had been fêted in this way. Other composers of his generation were also paid attention: Rachmaninov, Bartók, Hindemith, Ravel, Kodály, Pfitzner and Bloch, for example. One of the most important conductors of the first half of the twentieth century, Mengelberg’s career effectively ended with his naïve accommodation of the Nazis in his own country, Germany and other occupied countries. In 1945, the Dutch authorities banned him from conducting in Holland ever again, despite the admission that he had never held Nazi sympathies. One obituary of Mengelberg described him as “one of the greatest conductors of our age and certainly the greatest Dutchman since Rembrandt”.
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
Mahler: Symphony No. 4
Weber: Der Freischütz, Euryanthe, Oberon (Overtures)
15: Daniel Barenboim (b.1942), Argentina
The indefatigable Barenboim bestrides the musical world – and has done since the 1960s when his ‘second’ career as a conductor began. Having made his debut as a concert pianist at the age of seven, he was taken by his parents to Salzburg in 1954 where he attended conducting classes with Igor Markevitch and fell under the influence of Wilhelm Furtwängler who wrote: “The eleven-year-old Barenboim is a phenomenon”. During his remarkable double career, he has been music director of the Orchestra de Paris (1975-88), Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1991-2006) and, since 1992, the Berlin State Opera and the Staatskapelle Berlin. Barenboim, one of the greatest conductors, today commits much of his time to leading the Arab-Israeli West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1999 with Palestinian writer Edward Said.
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Bruckner: Complete Symphonies
Tchaikovsky and Sibelius: Violin Concertos (with Lisa Batiashvili)
14: Valery Gergiev (b.1953), USSR / Russia
As recognisable from his widely-photographed stubble-chinned image as he is for his baton-less conducting technique, Gergiev is one of today’s greatest conductors, wielding huge influence in the musical life of his own country. Having won the Herbert von Karajan Conducting Prize in Berlin (1977) he first came to prominence as assistant conductor at Leningrad’s Kirov Opera, now re-christened the Mariinsky Opera, in post-Soviet St Petersburg. In 1988 Gergiev became the Mariinsky’s chief conductor and artistic director, extending the repertoire and raising the performance standards to world-class levels. Known for his hectic work schedule, relentless energy and music-making of febrile intensity.
Shostakovich: Symphony No.7
Prokofiev: Complete Symphonies
Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov
13: Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985), Hungary
Born Jenő Blau in Budapest, he began his career as a violinist, coming to America in 1921 and securing a place in New York’s Capitol Theatre orchestra. He had his first taste of conducting when he covered for its ailing staff conductor. His next step up the ladder was in 1931 when he stepped in as a last-minute replacement for an incapacitated Toscanini concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1938, Ormandy became chief conductor of the Philadelphia, a post he held until 1980, one of the longest associations in history between a major orchestra and a conductor. Rhythmic drive, orchestral transparency and richness of string tone were his outstanding qualities. He was also a superb accompanist.
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No.3
Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 1, 3 and 4 (with Rachmaninov)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6
12: Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970), Great Britain
Barbirolli had no official training as a conductor. His musicality (inherited from his violinist father and grandfather, both of whom played in the first performance of Verdi’s Otello) and experience as a cellist gave him all he needed. By the late 1920s he was conducting at Covent Garden for the British National Opera Company (ancestor of today’s Royal Opera). After an unhappy tenure as the New York Philharmonic’s music director (he succeeded Toscanini), he became chief conductor of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra in 1943. He remained there for the rest of his career, a relationship still fondly recalled to this day. The symphonic repertoire aside, Barbirolli was one of the finest of all orchestral accompanists as his recordings from the 1930s attest with the likes of Kreisler, Heifetz, Rubinstein and Backhaus.
Elgar: Cello Concerto & Sea Pictures
Elgar & Vaughan Williams: Music for Strings
Mahler: Symphony No 5
11: Fritz Reiner (1888-1963), Hungary
The American critic Harold Schonberg wrote (of Reiner) that “as a musical intellect, as an incomparable musician, as the possessor of an ear virtually unparalleled in his field, Fritz Reiner held a unique spot in twentieth-century musical life and thought.” Reiner is remembered for his technical accuracy, his precision of phrasing and dynamics, for his meticulous preparation – and for his fearsome temper and penetrating gaze, inherited from his idol the great Artur Nikisch. Coming to America in 1922, he first ran the Cincinnati then Pittsburgh orchestras (1922-1948) but it is his work and recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that are most admired. Reiner’s tenure there coincided with RCA’s ‘Living Stereo’ engineering, and virtually all the discs he made for that label were or remain benchmarks.
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra
Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, Don Juan
10: Sir Simon Rattle (b. 1955), Great Britain
Rattle, one of the best conductors, began young, reading scores “as other children read comics” and was conducting and organising concerts in his native Merseyside even before he was accepted into the Royal Academy of Music in 1971. He cut his teeth with various regional British orchestras before becoming chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Orchestra in 1980. It was here that he made his name, transforming an already good orchestra into a world-class one. He stayed there for 18 years before being appointed chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1999, a post he held from 2002 to 2018. He has been Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra since 2017 and will become Chief Conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich from 2023. Rattle’s musical appetite is omnivorous, not just in the range of repertoire but in how it is performed – he is equally at home with period instrument performances as he is with the modern orchestra. Variety of repertoire (he champions a lot of contemporary music) and variety of style are defining characteristics of his extraordinary gifts.
Rachmaninov: The Bells, Symphonic Dances
J S Bach: St Matthew Passion
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess
9: Gustavo Dudamel (b. 1981), Venezuela
The charismatic Dudamel has had a rapid rise to the top of his profession. Possibly only Leonard Bernstein is the only conductor to have achieved global recognition at such a young age – and in such a short time. Deutsche Grammophon signed him up at the age of only 24. He owed his early music education to the famous Venezuelan El Sistema, began conducting in 1995 and was appointed to his first music director post (the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar) in 1999. Ten years later he was made music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is still there, with a contract that expires in 2026, and he will also become music director of Paris Opera from 1 August 2021. In 2019 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Dudamel, one of the best conductors, is a phenomenon.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Francesca da Rimini (with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra)
Ives: The Complete Symphonies
Williams: Celebrating John Williams
8: Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), Great Britain
For several generations of music lovers, Stokowski embodied the stereotypical image of a conductor – a glamorous, autocratic, infallible and remote figure – largely due to his collaboration with Walt Disney in the creation of the animated film Fantasia (1940). He made his debut in 1909 and conducted his last public concert in 1975. In his long career he led the Philadelphia Orchestra (from 1912 to 1936) turning it into one of the finest in the world, before founding the All-American Youth Orchestra (1940), the New York City Symphony Orchestra (1944), the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra (1945) and the American Symphony Orchestra (1962). Famously, he conducted without a baton. Wherever possible he sought to include new works in his programmes, and, to increase the accessibility of music to audiences, made myriad transcriptions for orchestra, especially the works of J S Bach.
Glière: Symphony No. 3 ‘Ilya Muromets’
Wagner-Stokowski: Tristan und Isolde Symphonic Synthesis
7: Sir Thomas Beecham, Bt. (1879-1961), Great Britain
Beecham’s father, Sir Joseph, was the seriously wealthy founder of the Beecham pharmaceutical company (today part of GlazoSmithKline). Possibly no other artist has used his inherited wealth to invest in and promote the musical life of his country more than Thomas Beecham. His innate musicality was matched by his entrepreneurial skills. He founded the New Symphony Orchestra in 1905, the Beecham Symphony Orchestra in 1910, mounted a season of opera at Covent Garden (1913), brought Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes to London (1913-14), founded the London Philharmonic in 1932 and the Royal Philharmonic in 1946. Championed the music of Delius, Sibelius and Richard Strauss, and was unsurpassed in Haydn and Mozart. As famous for his ‘Lollipops’ (orchestral encores) as his waspish wit.
Puccini: La Bohème
Delius: A Mass of Life, North Country Sketches
6: Claudio Abbado (1933-2014), Italy
Abbado must count as one of the most respected and beloved of all maestros – by orchestral musicians, soloists and audiences. Self-effacing, taciturn and an intensely private man, he nevertheless was the distinguished chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Vienna State Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic in succession. Abbado, one of the greatest conductors, also founded two youth orchestras (European Community Youth Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra) and, after surviving a life-threatening cancer operation in 2000, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra made up of handpicked players from his friends in top orchestras.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 1
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Martha Argerich)
Mahler: Symphony No. 3 (Lucerne Festival Orchestra)
5: Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), America
Without doubt one of the most important figures in 20th century music, Bernstein was more than just a conductor. He was a force of nature, a charismatic, handsome, highly intelligent and articulate pianist, educator and composer who wrote for every genre of music. Most famously, he was chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969. His many television appearances and preview concerts during this time did much to demythologise classical music. An extravagant, highly-charged figure on the rostrum, Bernstein, one of the greatest conductors, feasted on a repertoire that was eclectic and vast, his recording contract with Columbia allowing him to record virtually anything he chose.
Mahler: Complete Symphonies
Bernstein: Chichester Psalms; Symphony No. 2
Sibelius: Complete Symphonies
4: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), Germany
The very antithesis of Toscanini (see below) in at least two respects, Furtwängler had a famously imprecise beat (sometimes deliberately so) and remained in his native country throughout the duration of the Second World War, while the Italian refused to conduct in fascist Germany and Italy. Furtwängler is unarguably one of the greatest interpretative musicians of the 20th century. As a conductor, he lived in the moment, the performances part of an immediate reaction to particular circumstances in a way that few other conductors have ever surpassed or equalled. His goal was always to search out the emotional and spiritual essence of the music itself, inspiring performances of extraordinary intensity.
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Beethoven: Fidelio (Salzburg, live, 1950)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ (live, Vienna, 1944)
3: Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), Italy
One of the greatest conductors (musicians) of the 20th century, Toscanini was a legend in his lifetime and synonymous with his profession, such was his celebrity. Tyrannical, an obsessive perfectionist with a notoriously fiery temper, he dominated the classical music world through his recordings and broadcasts. The NBC Symphony Orchestra was formed specially for him in 1937 (he gave his final concert with them in 1954), in the process becoming a household name in America. Toscanini had a huge repertoire (always conducted from memory – and not just because he was short-sighted). His trademark characteristics are thrillingly taut, driven performances with great clarity and attention to detail. Filmed in rehearsal, he can often be heard encouraging his players with a cry of ‘Cantare!’ (‘Sing!’).
Debussy: La Mer
Wagner: Lohengrin (Preludes to Acts 1 and 3)
2: Herbert von Karajan (1908-89), Austrian
Karajan was the most famous and influential conductor of the second half of the 20th century. His prodigious musical gifts were allied to a fierce ambition and cunning political skills. Remembered today for his directorship of the Salzburg Festival and as the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (a post he held from 1954 to 1989), Karajan at one point constituted twenty-five percent of Deutsche Grammophon’s classical catalogue. During his lifetime, more than one hundred million copies of his recordings were sold. Karjan, one of the greatest conductors, ruled the classical music world, embraced the new digital technology with pioneering enthusiasm and, in the Viennese classics for which he was best known, remains unsurpassed.
Beethoven: Complete Symphonies – Philharmonia Orchestra
Brahms: Complete Symphonies – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
1: Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004), Austrian
Claudio Abbado called him “the most important conductor of the 20th century”. He was certainly among the most charismatic. To watch Kleiber conduct (there are many films of him rehearsing and in performance) is almost as pleasurable as hearing the results. He does so with an almost permanent smile on his face. He seems filled with joy. The tenor Plácido Domingo regards Kleiber as the most musical person he has ever met. Yet in his entire career, which concentrated on a small number of works, he conducted only 96 concerts, and about 600 operatic performances. Many experts reckon his recorded output to be unequalled, though he made no studio recordings after 1982. Liable to walk out and go home if things were not to his liking, he became increasingly reclusive, his obsessive perfection causing him such anxiety that he gave only a handful of concerts in the decade before his final one in 1999.
Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7
New Year’s Day Concerts (1989 and 1992)
Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
Carlos Kleiber’s Complete Recordings On Deutsche Grammophon (12 CD set) includes three CDs of orchestral works: Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 7, Brahms Symphony No.4 and Schubert Symphonies 3 and 8; as well as his four complete opera recordings: Der Freischütz, Die Fledermaus, La Traviata and Tristan und Isolde. “Kleiber’s magic is evident in every bar of the music. His Beethoven and Brahms sound as fresh now as when they were released, and his three-CD Tristan has the inestimable advantage of Margaret Price’s gorgeous bel canto Isolde …This collection …is a must-have for any serious music-lover.” – The Sunday Times
Carlos Kleiber’s Complete Recordings On Deutsche Grammophon can be bought here.