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…

The 20 Greatest Conductors of All Time

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


Essential Recording:

Janáček Jenůfa
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.


Essential Recording:

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.


Essential Recording:

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.

Mravinsky’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s work – powerfully expressive yet with a masterful sense of structure – was legendary.


Essential Recording:

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.


Essential Recording:

Debussy Images
London Symphony Orchestra (Eloquence 476 8472)



15. Bernard Haitink (b1929), Dutch