All eye-witness accounts of Liszt’s playing put him in the very first rank of classical pianists. Over an eight-year period of touring Europe in the early 1840s, he is estimated to have given over 1,000 performances. Part of the reason for his legendary status could be that he retired from performing at the relatively young age of 35 to concentrate on composing.
Rachmaninoff’s style was perhaps in contradiction to the time in which he lived, as he sought to maintain the romanticism of the 19th century well in to the 20th. These recordings, beginning with his prelude in C sharp major recorded in 1919, have been remastered to showcase his abilities.
Rubinstein’s talent in combining elements of romanticism with the more modern-day technical aspects of a piece helped turn him in to one of the best pianists of his day. His personality, and his willingness to take risks in his playing endeared him to audiences.
Haskil stood out as a remarkable natural talent, able to reproduce Mozart and Beethoven as a child before she had taken music lessons. Her international career was delayed by poor health and world war, but she went on to make a name for herself with her performances of Mozart, which were described by one reviewer as “for the gods.”
Richter showed a great fidelity to the composer in his performances, describing his role as that of an “executant” rather than an “interpreter.” He held himself to such high standards in his performance that after realising he had been playing a wrong note in Bach’s Italian concerto for some time, he insisted on having a disclaimer printed on a CD containing a recording of the piece.
Over Horowitz’s lengthy career, he impressed audiences with his extraordinary technical abilities and his interpretations. His ability to alter aspects of works by composers past and present won him praise from composers and fellow pianists, although some music critics took exception to this. Here is Horowitz performing at Carnegie Hall in 1951.
Despite 33 years since his passing, Glenn Gould still remains one of the most fascinating and inspiring pianists who ever lived. With his unique way of playing, he had the power to change the way the world listened to the works of Bach.
Ashkenazy’s broad repertoire includes Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Beethoven, Haydn, Scriabin and Chopin. He has consistently shown the ability to merge an articulate and intelligent playing style with the conveying of powerful emotion.
Known for her passionate playing and technical ability, Argerich is widely recognised as one of the greatest pianists of the latter half of the 20th century. She won acclaim for her recordings of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff.
Although he has tended to avoid the recording studio, Sokolov is a brilliant technician who came to international prominence in the 1980s. He has released CDs, mainly of live performances, of music by Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, among others.
The 25 best piano players of all time
Leif Ove Andsnes (1970-)
The brilliant Norwegian pianist has made a name for himself as one of the greatest musicians working today, not least with his recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos with The Mahler Chamber Orchestra. A critic for Gramophone magazine called the series “an extraordinary achievement.”
Martha Argerich (1941-)
The world woke up to the phenomenal talent of the Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich in 1964 when she won the International Chopin Piano Competition at the age of 24. She is now arguably the greatest living pianist and can sell out concerts in minutes.
Claudio Arrau (1903-1991)
It’s said that this great Chilean pianist could read music before he could read words. It wasn’t long before he was playing works like the virtuosic Transcendental Etudes by Liszt. He’s perhaps best-known for his interpretations of the music of Beethoven. The legendary conductor Colin Davis said of Arrau: “His sound is amazing, and it is entirely his own… His devotion to Liszt is extraordinary. He ennobles that music in a way no one else in the world can.”
Vladimir Ashkenazy (1937-)
Ashkenazy is one of the heavyweights of the classical music world. Having been born in Russia he now holds both Icelandic and Swiss citizenship and is still performing as a pianist and conductor around the world. In 1962 he was a joint winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition (with John Ogdon, see below) and the following year he left the USSR to live in London.
His vast catalogue of recordings includes the complete piano works of Rachmaninov and Chopin, the complete sonatas of Beethoven, Mozart’s piano concertos as well as works by Scriabin, Prokfiev and Brahms. He’s worked with all the biggest names of the 20th century including conductors Georg Solti, Zubin Mehta and Bernard Haitink.
Daniel Barenboim (1942-)
In 2012, Ban Ki-moon, Haile Gebrselassie and Doreen Lawrence were joined by the Israeli-Argentinian conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim as they carried the Olympic flag into the London stadium. Barenboim’s international fame is now partly down to his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – which he founded with Edward Said and is made up of musicians from across the Middle East. But he has also produced some of the best recordings ever made and is assured a place in the history books.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
“Beethoven’s playing differs so greatly from the usual method of treating the piano, that it seems as if he had struck out an entirely new path for himself.” Those are the words of one of Beethoven’s contemporaries, Carl Ludwig Junker. We may not have any recordings of Beethoven performing, but we have the virtuosic and inventive music he wrote for the piano and accounts from people who heard him play. The man who is now better known as a composer was much admired for his use of legato and the singing tone he was able to produce.
Alfred Brendel (1931-)
“If I belong to a tradition it is a tradition that makes the masterpiece tell the performer what he should do and not the performer telling the piece what it should be like.” Those are the words of the brilliant Mr Brendel himself. He can turn his hand to music from any period but is particularly respected for his interpretations of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Liszt.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Poland’s most famous composer was also one of the great piano virtuosos of his day. The vast majority of his work was for solo piano and though there are no recordings of him playing (the earliest sound recordings are from the 1860s), one contemporary said: “One may say that Chopin is the creator of a school of piano and a school of composition. In truth, nothing equals the lightness, the sweetness with which the composer preludes on the piano; moreover nothing may be compared to his works full of originality, distinction and grace.”
Glenn Gould (1932-1982)
If there were ever a pianist who divided classical music fans, Glenn Gould is it. The Canadian pianist is best-known for his performances of the music of J.S. Bach, and particularly The Goldberg Variations. But he’s also famous for humming along while he played, performing on a tiny chair which he took to all his concerts and his exacting demands for recording and performing conditions.
Myra Hess (1890-1965)
Dame Myra Hess, as she eventually became, is famous not so much for winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at the age of 12, nor of performing with the legendary conductor Sir Thomas Beecham when she was 17 – but for the series of concerts she gave at the National Gallery during WWII. During the war, London’s music venues were closed to avoid mass casualties if any were hit by bombs. Hess had the idea of using the Gallery to host lunchtime concerts. The series ran for six and a half years and Hess herself performed in 150 of them.
Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989)
There’s a strong case to be made for Vladimir Horowitz to be crowned the greatest pianist of all time. He made his debut in 1920 in a solo recital in Kharkiv. In 1925 his fame had grown substantially and he crossed into the West, saying he wished to study with Artur Schnabel in Berlin – but he’d decided to leave for good and had stuffed American and British money into his shoes. He gave his debut in the US in 1928 at Carnegie Hall and he went on to become an American citizen. He is best known for his performances of Romantic works including music by Chopin, Rachmaninov and Schumann.
Stephen Hough (1961-)
British pianist Stephen Hough is a consummate soloist and chamber musician, as comfortable playing the showcase-Romantic concertos as a piano quintet or a miniature by Massenet or Ravel. “Hough is one of those keyboard polymaths who’s at home in whatever music he chooses to play,” wrote one critic. Oh and did we mention he also composes and paints? A true Renaissance man.
Lang Lang (1982-)
Lang Lang changed the classical music world forever with his inimitable panache both on and off stage. Thousands of children in China took up the piano in what has become know as ‘the Lang-Lang effect’. So, like his style or not, there’s no denying the impact Lang Lang has had on the classical scene.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Vying with Chopin for the crown of greatest 19th-century-virtuoso was Franz Liszt, the Hungarian composer, teacher and pianist. Among his best known works are his fiendishly difficult Années de pèlerinage, the Piano Sonata in B minor and his Mephisto Waltz. And as a performer his fame was legendary – there was even a word coined for the frenzy he inspired: Lisztomania.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Again, this is not a pianist anyone alive today has had the privilege to hear, but by all accounts – and judging by the piano music he wrote – he could give anyone in this list a run for their money. Just listen to his Piano Concerto No.21 for an idea of what the most famous composer of them all might have sounded like…
John Ogdon (1937-1989)
Ogdon was part of a new generation of musicians when he studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in the 1950s, alongside Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr. He could play almost anything from sight and famously had an astonishing memory for music. In 1962 he jointly won the International Tchaikovsky Competition with Vladimir Ashkenazy and recorded a huge amount of music by Rachmaninov.
Murray Perahia (1947-)
Perahia may have started playing the plano when he was just four but it wasn’t until the age of 15 that, he says, he became seriously interested in music. In 1972 he became the first North American to win the Leeds Piano Competition and the following year he worked with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at the Aldeburgh Festival. In 1992 a bone abnormality caused his hand to swell and forced him to take some time off from performing. It was during this time that he found solace in the music of J.S. Bach. His Bach recordings are regarded as some of the best ever made.
Maria Joao Pires (1944-)
A Portuguese pianist admired for her interpretations of Chopin, Schubert and Mozart, among many others. A critic in The Times said “she makes you listen to Schubert’s genius with fresh ears.”
She also, clearly has an amazing memory – remember the time she’d prepared the wrong concerto for a concert and just played the right one anyway?
Maurizio Pollini (1942-)
When Pollini won the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1960, Arthur Rubinstein apparently said: “that boy can play the piano better than any of us.” Ever since, Pollini has been steadily building his reputation as one of today’s greatest pianists having performed with the likes of conductor Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. In 2010-11 London’s Southbank Centre programmed ‘the Pollini Project’, a series of five concerts of music ranging from Bach to Stockhausen.
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Famously, Rachmaninov could comfortably stretch a 13th on the piano (five more notes than an octave) and even a cursory glance at the Etudes and Concertos he wrote makes a convincing case for that fact being true. Happily, recordings survive of this brilliant pianist in action. Arthur Rubinstein said of Rachmaninov: “He had the golden, living tone which comes from the heart.”
Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997)
One of the many greats battling for the title of best 20th-century pianist, Richter is part of a handful of mighty Russian pianists who emerged in the mid-20th century. He wasn’t a big fan of the recording process, however, so his best albums are recordings of his live performances including those in Amsterdam in 1986, in New York in 1960 and in Leipzig in 1963.
Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)
This Polish American pianist is often quoted as the best Chopin performer of all time. He was found to have perfect pitch at the age of two and he made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic when he was just 13. He was taught by a pianist called Karl Heinrich Barth, who had been a pupil of Liszt, meaning that Rubinstein was part of a formidable pianistic tradition.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
One of the few female pianists to compete in the largely male world of 19th-century music, Clara was a superstar of her day. Her talents far outshone those of her composer husband Robert. She wrote her own music as well – you can hear an example in the video below.
One critic of the time said: “The appearance of this artist can be regarded as epoch-making… In her creative hands, the most ordinary passage, the most routine motive acquires a significant meaning, a colour, which only those with the most consummate artistry can give.”
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (1961-)
The great pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said he’d heard Thibaudet’s fingers do things his own couldn’t in Liszt’s Faust Waltz. And Horowitz was indisputably one of the greats…
Mitsuko Uchida (1948-)
The Japanese-British pianist Mitsuko Uchida was recently made a Dame – demonstrating her vital importance to the music world. She studied in Vienna and gave her first recital in the town when she was just 14. Best known for her performances of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin she’s also made world-class recordings of works by Schubert and, more recently, Schumann.
The 25 greatest violinists of all time
Joshua Bell (1967 – )
When the idea of a child prodigy was still something strange and new, Joshua Bell was one of the only musicians to actually turn it into a fully-fledged career through sheer, continued hard work and excellence.
Nicola Benedetti (1987 – )
She’s a tireless advocate for the instrument and for music education in general, but she just so happens to be a world-class violinist too. A world-changer of the future (and a Korngold fan).
Sarah Chang (1980 – )
Incredibly, Sarah Chang has been performing on international stages for over 30 years. That’s what happens when you can play entire concertos from the age of 5. It’s hard to imagine a child prodigy who made such an impact at such a young age, and then miraculously keep the momentum going into her adult life.
George Enescu (1881 – 1955)
He’s a god among Romanians and, happily, also a god among violinists thanks to his exhaustive output for the instrument and his dynamite tone.
Julia Fischer (1983 – )
Not content with being a world-class violinist, Fischer is also a concert pianist on occasion – and perhaps it’s this that gives her that inimitable musicality, something more rounded than so many of her contemporaries.
Midori Gotō (1971 – )
Ever since she managed to conquer two broken E strings in one performance in front of Leonard Bernstein, Midori has been a legend.
Hilary Hahn (1979 – )
A true experimenter, Hahn’s innovative approach has revolutionised the violin for the modern age.
Jascha Heifetz (1901 – 1987)
When he first heard Heifetz play, fellow violin legend Fritz Kreisler said: “We might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees.” Fair enough.
Janine Jansen (1978 – )
A Bach specialist with a romantic tone like no other, Dutch violinist Janine Jansen seems to have been at the forefront of the violin world forever.
Nigel Kennedy (1956 – )
A genuine firebrand, Kennedy achieved the trick of simultaneously annoying and delighting the violin establishment. Even today, slightly mellower than in his wild days, he’s essential.
Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962)
Kreisler was a pioneer of eking emotion out of his instrument, with an immediately recognisable tone. But he was also a composer of fiendish and legendary works for the violin too, securing his legacy and influence.
Gidon Kremer (1947 – )
Equally at home with the Baroque as he is with contemporary music, Latvian Kremer’s style is so adaptable and forward-thinking that it’s all the more incredible he’s able to inject his playing with such personality.
Yehudi Menuhin (1916 – 1999)
Few violinists can claim to be responsible for ushering in a new generation of top-flight violinists, but Menuhin certainly can. An innovative and passionate educator, as well as a top performer.
Viktoria Mullova (1959 – )
Russian Mullova hit the headlines after a dramatic escape from the KGB during a concert tour to Finland. Clearly, though, Mullova’s talent for diplomatic evasion was more than matched by her violin skills.
Anne-Sophie Mutter (1963 – )
German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter was mentored in her early career by the great conductor Herbert von Karajan, and it shows. She’s a huge champion of modern works rather than just the old favourites and, as such, is vital to the instrument’s growth.
Ginette Neveu (1919 – 1949)
Tragically, Neveu died in a plane crash when she was just 30, something made all the more tragic by just how much promise she showed. She once beat David Oistrakh in the Wieniawski Competition and was already making some classic recordings – it’s tempting to imagine just what might have been.
David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974)
When both Shostakovich and Khachaturian dedicate their violin concertos to you, you know you’re doing alright. Oistrakh was a legend.
Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840)
No other violinist in history has held as much influence and power over the way the instrument is played. Compositions, legendary performances, and even a biopic starring David Garrett – what a legacy.
Itzhak Perlman (1945 – )
Few have done as much for the popularity of the violin as Itzhak Perlman. Hugely decorated, hugely respected, and a dab hand at Schindler’s List.
Pablo de Sarasate (1844 – 1908)
If Sarasate had only written his epic ‘Zigeunerweisen’, he’d still be an absolute legend. But as it happens, he was also a devilishly talented performer.
Gil Shaham (1971 – )
Though he was probably always destined for greatness, Shaham got his big break when he filled in for Itzhak Perlman in a concert in 1989, playing the Bruch and Sibelius concertos.
Isaac Stern (1920 – 2001)
Stern was the driving force behind some of the greatest musicians of the generation that followed him, including Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. But first and foremost, it was always his playing that made him a star.
Maxim Vengerov (1974 – )
Few violinists appear so effortless in performance than Russian Maxim Vengerov, another prodigy made good. Oh, and he’s the first musician to be made an International Goodwill Ambassador by UNICEF.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)
The daddy of Baroque violin, and an unignorable influence on the violin as it is played today. It’s no wonder that his concertos still act as a training ground for the professionals of today.
Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931)
He’s not much of a name outside musical circles, but Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe has written some of the absolute beasts of the repertoire – and he was a fairly incomparable player, too.
The 50 greatest conductors of all time
A great conductor illuminates music you thought you knew in a way that you couldn’t possibly have imagined. Here are 50 of the best, mostly drawn from the Gramophone Hall of Fame, and there are many more besides – so keep exploring!
Born and raised in Milan, Abbado studied with Hans Swarowsky in Vienna. He made his La Scala debut in 1960 and was the house’s music director from 1968 to 1986. He headed the Vienna State Opera (1986-91), London Symphony Orchestra (1979-87) and succeeded Karajan at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic (1989-2002). He founded the European Union Youth Orchestra, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and re-established the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and is closely associated with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)
Another genius who recently passed away, Abbado conducted at the greatest opera houses, and directed the world’s finest orchestras. He succeeded Karajan at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic – a hard act to follow in which he succeeded magnificently.
Born in London to Italian and French parents, Barbirolli was closely associated with English music, particularly as a wonderful interpreter of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, but he was also a great Mahler interpreter and also superb in Puccini (his set of Madama Butterfly is one of the great recordings). After an unhappy period at the helm of the New York PO where he succeeded Arturo Toscanini, he returned to the UK and headed the Hallé Orchestra for the rest of life, creating a world-class ensemble. He conducted the best-selling EMI disc of Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Cello Concerto putting both Jacqueline du Pré and Dame Janet Baker on the musical map.
A child prodigy who played for Furtwängler, Barenboim’s professional career goes back 62 years. In his early twenties he recorded all the Beethoven piano sonatas and concertos, works he’s returned to throughout his career. He took up conducting in 1966 and has combined a dual career ever since. Posts he has held include heading the Orchestre de Paris, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Staatskapelle Berlin. A Bayreuth regular he now leads Berlin’s Staatsoper and Milan’s La Scala. He is a co-founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
Apart from his podium skills – which embraced a huge amount of music in numerous different styles – Beecham was one of British music’s greatest patrons, spending a number of fortunes on orchestras and concerts. He founded both the RPO and LPO, and recorded extensively for EMI.
Like no other musician of his age, Bernstein was able to straddle the extremes of the musical world – an intellectual, a composer who wrote complex symphonies and 12-tone music but who was equally happy playing piano and writing Broadway musicals, able to take his adoring public with him down most of the roads he chose to travel.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Bernstein was always captivating to watch – for either his extreme movements on the podium or his strongly emotional and often unusual approach to rhythm and tempo. One of classical music’s real one-offs, we couldn’t have a list of best conductors that didn’t feature Lenny.
A noted interpreter of the music of Mozart, Strauss and Wagner, Böhm is most closely associated with the Vienna State Opera where he appeared frequently.
With his meticulous conducting technique and phenomenal ear, Boulez championed the music of fellow French composers, and performed a vast repertoire, old and new.
Boult was one of the UK’s greatest conductors with a repertoire that embraced a huge amount of new music. An exponent of Elgar’s music, Boult also gave UK premieres of music by Bartók, Stravinsky and the Second Viennese School.
Adrian Boult (1889-1983)
Rising to fame as conductor of the City of Birmingham Orchestra in 1924, Boult famously moved very little on the podium. In 1978, meeting Mark Elder backstage after a concert, Boult said to the young conductor, “I see you’re one of the sweaty ones.”
Romanian-born and Berlin-trained Celibidache pursued an unusual career, largely due to his refusal to make any commercial recordings. Since his death, numerous radio broadcasts have been issued commercially.
Music Director of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra and Music Director designate of La Scala, Milan, Chailly is one of today’s great conductors. His very broad musical sympathies have been honed with the Berlin RSO (1982-88) and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (1988-2004), and, in the opera house, Bologna’s Teatro Comunale (1986-93). He has recorded for Decca since 1982.
Davis led many of the world’s great orchestras, including the BBC SO, LSO, Bavarian RSO and Staatskapelle Dresden, as well as leading Covent Garden from 1971 to 1987. A noted Mozartian, Davis’s repertoire also embraced Tippett, Sibelius, Berlioz and Nielsen. His discography was focused on Philips, RCA and LSO Live.
Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)
Best known for his association with the LSO, Sir Colin Davis – who only died last year – is already a legendary name in conducting. The outpouring of sadness and fondness from the classical music world when he died was incredible to witness, proving he was just as much a hit with his peers as he was with his audiences.
The most successful product of Venezuela’s El Sistema, Dudamel received early encouragement from Rattle and Abbado and, with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, shot to international celebrity. He is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Gustavo Dudamel (1981-)
The brightest young thing on the international conducting scene, Dudamel is the music director of both the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He’s even conducted penguins on Sesame Street – beat that, Fritz Reiner.
A conductor whose vividly characterful interpretations of sparkling detail led to a prolific recording career that was tragically cut short at the age of just 48. Conducting positions included Chief Conductor of the Berlin RIAS (later Berlin Radio) Symphony Orchestra, General Music Director of the Städtische Oper Berlin and Music Director of the State Opera in Munich.
One of the conducting giants of the first half of the 20th century, Wilhelm Furtwängler was also a composer. His life-long devotion to the music of Beethoven resulted in a series of almost legendary recordings. He worked with a number of German orchestras before heading – concurrently – the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (1922-28) and the Berlin Philharmonic (1922-45, and 1952-54). He remained in Nazi Germany during the war, a move that stirred up a controversy that continues to rage, and which was explored in Ronald Harwood’s play Taking Sides (1995, and subsequently filmed).
John Eliot Gardiner
One of the great advocates of period-instrument performance, Gardiner’s interpretations have revitalised many people’s appreciation of the great choral and symphonic repertoire. He founded the Monteverdi Choir in 1966 and followed it in 1978 with the English Baroque Soloists (and later, in 1990, with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique). His recordings have been hugely successful and in 2000 he toured (and recorded) all of Bach’s sacred cantatas. He has received more Gramophone Awards than any other living artist. He conducts a broad repertoire, often with orchestras other than his own, and has a great reputation in French repertoire (particularly Berlioz) of which he has recorded much.
Probably the world’s busiest conductor, Valery Gergiev has held a number of formal conductor positions, including with the London Symphony Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, Mariinsky Theatre, Kirov Opera, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, and is a prolific recording artist and guest conductor.
Valery Gergiev (1953-)
A brilliant and controversial figure, Gergiev is the present principal conductor of the LSO. Reportedly a good friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Gergiev has denied that he and Putin are each other’s children’s godfathers. He is seen here conducting at the close of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.
Carlo Maria Giulini
A former viola player in Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra, Giulini played for many of the greats before taking up the baton himself. Legendary opera productions and recordings (sometimes with Maria Callas) established his theatrical credentials, but later he concentrated on the symphonic repertoire.
Bernard Haitink, one of the great conductors of our day, headed the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1961 to 1988, establishing his reputation in the core works of the repertoire.
One of the great pioneers of the period-instrument movement, Harnoncourt founded his Concentus Musicus Wien in 1953 and, recording extensively, helped create a new audience for this historically informed approach. He later took these lessons back to tradional ensembles, regularly conducting the VPO, BPO and Royal Concertgebouw orchestras, as well as forging a fruitful relationship with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (with whom he recorded the Beethoven symphonies, winning them Gramophone’s Recording of the Year in 1992).
One of the giants of the early music world, Hogwood is celebrated for his extensive catalogue for Decca’s L’Oiseau-Lyre label.
The son of conductor Arvīds Jansons, Jansons Jnr studied in St Petersburg with Mravinsky and then with Swarowsky and Karajan. His Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (whose music director he was from 1979 to 2000) put him on the map and in 1997 he took over the Pittsburgh Symphony. He became music director of the Bavarian RSO in 2003 and chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra the following year.
A German conductor who initially worked his way up, one step at a time, through the small-town opera houses in his native land, Eugen Jochum quickly established longstanding associations with major orchestras. Jochum was often regarded as something of a saintly figure (he was indeed a deeply religious man). Certainly he was not drawn towards the exhibitionism of a ‘maestro’. Nevertheless his control and his sound musicianship were never in doubt. In many composers, over and above his beloved Bruckner, he was outstanding and he had the gift of drawing fine playing from an orchestra. A major figure, without a doubt.
Herbert von Karajan
For all the achievements of Edison, and Fred Gaisberg, and Compton Mackenzie, to name a few, in creating records and a market for them, classical music’s industrial revolution was born on 19 January, 1946 when Walter Legge met Herbert von Karajan in Vienna. The wheel stopped turning, to the chagrin of record executives the world over, on 16 July, 1989, when Karajan died at his home in Anif, outside Salzburg. Listeners have moved on, even if not all record companies have, to a more pluralistic age and perhaps one, in Karajan’s prophecy, where ‘we shall be overwhelmed with things that are tenth-rate’. His story is the story of that ‘classical record industry’, its self-aggrandising triumphs and moments of sublimity as well as grotesquerie.
Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989)
This larger-than-life character reigned at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic for 35 years. He was the first classical megastar of the recording era, selling some 200 million records.
Son of the great German conductor Erich Kleiber, Carlos – because of the rarity of his performances and his superb musicianship – achieved legendary status during his lifetime. He conducted fewer than 100 orchestral concerts in his entire career. He left a small but critically admired recorded legacy with Beethoven’s Fifth (DG) arguably his most celebrated disc.
Despite a hugely successful early career, Klemperer’s reputation lies on the remarkable Indian Summer during the 1950s and 1960s when he recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra for EMI whose principal conductor he was from 1959 until his death. As a young man he worked with Mahler: he conducted the off-stage brass in a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony and assisted at the premiere of the Eighth Symphony. He worked at a number of European opera houses: Hamburg, Bremen, Strasbourg, Cologne and Wiesbaden, before headed the Kroll Opera in Berlin where he gained a reputation for champion new works. Forced out of Germany by the Nazis, he became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1939 but illness robbed him of the top job, though he continued to appear as a guest conductor. After the war he joined the Budapest Opera but left when the Communist regime was established. He undertook a lot of guest work before being invited by Walter Legge to work with the newly established Philharmonia Orchestra.
Otto Klemperer (1885-1973)
Klemperer was a perfectionist and you wouldn’t, as a musician, want to be at the receiving end of his rather terrifyingly intense gaze. He was friends with Mahler, too, so y’know. He knew his stuff.
Conductor, entrepreneur, publisher, Francophile, doublebass virtuoso, teacher – the flamboyant Russian Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) was all these and so much more. Not only did he mould the Boston Symphony Orchestra into world beaters and maintain those exalted standards for a quarter of a century, he also transformed musical life in New England and beyond. Suspicions linger as to Koussevitzky’s unconventional stick technique and limited grasp of theory, but that would be to reckon without his magnetic personality, indefatigable energy and missionary zeal.
Son of violinist Jan Kubelík, Rafael trained in Prague and made his professional debut aged 19. He headed the Chicago SO for three unhappy years from 1950, then moved to Covent Garden (1955-58) before becoming music director of the Bavarian RSO, a collaboration that resulted in some glorious music-making.
From his Met debut to his last appearance in 2011, Levine has conducted 2442 performances at the house of which he has been music director since 1976. He has recorded extensively, mainly for EMI and then DG. He has also served as music director of the Munich Philharmonic and Boston Symphony.
A child prodigy – he first conducted at the age of nine – Maazel went on to become one of the leading conductors of our time. Among his many posts, he was Music Director of the New York Philharmonic (2002-09), of the Bavarian RSO (1993-2002) and of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (198896); he also held positions at Vienna State Opera (1982-84), Orchestre Nationale de France (1977-91), Cleveland Orchestra (1972-82) and Deutsche Oper Berlin (1965-71). When, following Karajan’s death in 1989, he was passed over in favour of Claudio Abbado as the Berlin Philharmonic’s Principal Conductor, he took umbrage and never conducted the orchestra again.
Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)
Maazel was a child prodigy, making his podium debut at the age of eight. He had a reputation for excellent baton technique, of which he once said: “I don’t recognise stick technique per se. I don’t think I ever make the same motion twice in the same bar of music. The aim is to find a motion that responds to the need of a particular player at a particular moment. The player must be put at ease, so that he knows where he is and what is expected, and is free to concentrate on beauty of tone. There is no magic involved.”
A supremely versatile conductor, the Australian Mackerras was a specialist in the music of Handel, Mozart, Dvořák and Janáček, the latter for whom he was the composer’s greatest advocate.
Founder, in 1958, and conductor of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Marriner has also held posts with the Los Angeles Chamber, Minnesota and Stuttgart Radio orchestras. With the ASMF, he has probably made more recordings than any other conductor.
Still the only Indian musician to achieve major international renown in the classical music world, Mehta is music director for life of the Israel PO. Vienna-trained, he has headed orchestras in Montreal, Los Angeles and New York.
When Mengelberg died in 1951: The Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra acquired the utmost degree offiexibility, delicacy of nuance and majestic sonority under his 50 years’ direction. He welded the New York Philharmonic and Symphony Orchestras into one, and, before the war, conducted every great orchestra in the world. He gave his life to music in Holland, leaving an ideal post in Lucerne at the age of 23, and refusing the innumerable tempting offers subsequently made to him. In 1945, he was expelled from Holland on a charge of collaboration, despite the admission that he had never held Nazi sympathies, and had actually helped refugees to escape. To quote Sir Charles Stanford: ‘Far-reaching international work for art has been achieved by Mengelberg…he has always upheld the principle that art knows no frontiers.’ He was, in the opinion of many, the greatest conductor of our age, and certainly the greatest Dutchman since Rembrandt.
A man who played for and met Brahms, made music with Saint-Saëns, worked with and premiered the music of Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel, and was remembered by the late Sir Georg Solti in his recently published memoirs as ‘one of most brilliant conductors of the first half of the twentieth century’. A musician is unlikely to have a reputation founded on anything other than recordings. But for Monteux, recording was no substitute for the real thing, since the method, as he saw it, precluded spontaneity. Fortunately there were enough moments during Monteux’s 40-odd years of venturing into the studio where conditions allowed his illuminating and enlivening art to thrive. Early recording triumphs included the first-ever completed recording of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, prompting, in March 1930, the cherishably quaint Gramophone reaction, ‘the whole thing is amazingly thrilling, if in parts, rather horrible’
Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic from 1938-88, focusing on repertoire that included the premieres of six Shostakovich symphonies. A hard taskmaster, he achieved a standard of performance that remains the stuff of legend.
For better-known repertory, the inspiration of the moment – chancing his arm – was a key element in a Munch performance. ‘You never knew what to expect,’ said the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s timpanist, Vic Firth. ‘That’s what made it so exciting; he might rehearse it one way, and in the concert, he had the smile of the devil as he turned and twisted the music just enough so that it was different.’ But the risks would always be rooted in relative certainties. He knew, during his 13 years in Boston, that he could rely on the facility of his players and their receptivity to his own ‘magic emanations’ (he never prepared the entire ground in rehearsal). But the degrees by which Munch would ‘twist and turn the music’ varied significantly from concert to recording. ‘Concert day is a celebration,’ he wrote in his book; whereas recording is referred to, almost in a footnote, as ‘becoming a separate profession.’
Muti was Music Director of the (New) Philharmonia from 1973-82, the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1980-92 and La Scala from 1986-2005. He has conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2010.
The young conductor Adrian Boult idolised Nikisch. He wrote: ‘The conductors of the present day may be divided into three schools: there are the men who beat time, like Dr Richter; who guide the orchestra, like Mr Safonoff; and who hypnotise the orchestra, like Mr Nikisch’. Nikisch exercised a precise control of ensemble, dynamics, rubato, and phrasing which even today leaps out of the grooves of his primitive gramophone recordings. He did this by revolutionizing the conductor’s stick technique, making its pivot the fingers and thumb, then the wrist, and only last of all the elbow. And Nikisch held a conducting class at the Leipzig Conservatory. After Oxford, Adrian Boult was determined to go to Leipzig and study in that class. By the time he arrived there in 1912, Nikisch had retired from teaching. But he still conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and the young Boult obtained a card to attend Nikisch’s rehearsals so as to study the technique at first hand.
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.
Seiji Ozawa chalked up his first Gramophone appearance in September 1968 with a warmly received pairing of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie and Takemitsu’s November Steps; and in a review of Ozawa’s The Rite of Spring with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Edward Greenfield, in March 1969, pretty much set the tone for how Ozawa has been assessed in this magazine ever since: ‘I have never known a more balletic performance than this,’ he wrote, ‘balletic in the sense that Ozawa makes the music dance.’
Seiji Ozawa (1935-)
Ozawa broke new ground, not only as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director from 1973 until 2002, but also for wearing a white turtleneck when he conducted. Total cad.
Music Director of both the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and Rome’s Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.
Liverpool-born Rattle made his name during his long tenure at the helm of the CBSO, creating an ensemble of world class and with whom he recorded extensively for EMI. In 2002 he succeeded Claudio Abbado as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. His repertoire ranges from Baroque music (often performed on period instruments: he has a role with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) to the music of today (he is a great champion of contemporary composers). He is married to the mezzo Magdalena Kožená. Rattle will be the next Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra from 2017.
Sir Simon Rattle (1955-)
Once a bright young thing, Rattle rose to international prominence as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He then went on to conquer the notoriously hard to please Berlin Philharmonic, as well as his own cloud-like hair. But perhaps best of all, during the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, he took the LSO through a version of ‘Chariots of Fire’ with Mr. Bean on keyboards.
For the audience the podium manner was outwardly impassive; for the players it was electric with inner vitality; a minutely contained and controlled but rich variety of body language that optimally communicated all Reiner’s intentions. In 1953 he became Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which, under him, according to Stravinsky, became ‘the most precise and flexible orchestra in the world’.
Fritz Reiner (1888–1963)
An immigrant to the U.S.A. from Hungary, Reiner rose to fame as the conductor of the Chicago Symphony. He is remembered as a champion of modern composers – but admired Mozart best of all.
Sir Georg Solti was one of the most respected and – through his ground-breaking recordings with producer John Culshaw – influential conductors of the 20th century. A pupil of Bartók, Weiner and Dohnányi in Budapest, Solti worked with Toscanini in Salzburg. He headed the opera in Frankfurt before taking over the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In 1969 he became music director of the Chicago SO, a post he kept for 22 years; he also held positions with the LPO and Orchestre de Paris. An exclusive Decca artist he left a vast discography of which the complete Ring is perhaps the jewel.
Few conductors have enjoyed as long and fruitful a career as Leopold Stokowski, to say nothing of his impact on the development ot twentieth-century orchestral playing. On the podium he exuded equal doses of glamour and showmanship. His mesmerizing, baton-less hands were shaken on screen by Mickey Mouse in Fantasia and brilliantly lampooned by a bewigged Bugs Bunny in the Warner Bros. cartoon Long Haired Hare. He premiered many important works, including Varèse’s Ameriques, Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and Ives’s Symphony No 4.
Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977)
Stokowski is best known today as the conductor in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ but he did a lot more besides and was still conducting right up until his death at the age of 95. He was especially noted for preferring to conduct without a baton.
The Hungarian conductor’s greatest legacy is the Cleveland Orchestra, which he raised to the pinnacle of virtuosity and ensemble. Already one of Europe’s leading conductors, Szell took over the Ohio orchestra in 1946 and, until his death in 1970, made a series of outstanding recordings of the core repertoire. He was also an admired guest conductor (both in concert and in the studio).
Michael Tilson Thomas
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.
After making his debut aged 19 swapping his cello for a baton and conducting Aida – to huge success – his career never faltered. He led the premieres of La bohème and Pagliacci, and later headed La Scala (1921-29). He worked frequently in the US and, after the Fascist take-over of Italy settled in New York where NBC created an orchestra for him and he broadcast and recorded extensively, playing much American fare.
Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957)
Many conductors today still consider Toscanini the greatest Verdian of them all. Not surprising, really, seeing as he actually began his musical life playing under Verdi himself. Toscanini also gave the première performances of ‘La bohème’ and ‘Turandot’, so he’s basically a legend.
Walter made his debut in Cologne and later worked in Hamburg where he met Gustav Mahler. He fled to the US in 1939, where he enjoyed a revitalised career at the helm of the Columbia SO, formed especially for him to record with.
When he died, on St Valentine’s Day 2002, Gunter Wand’s reputation seemed set. In his glorious Indian Summer he had at last been widely acknowledged as a master in the so-called Austro-German ‘core’ repertoire – Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner – that he loved so much. His recordings from Hamburg and Berlin had earned lavish praise and numerous prizes and it was said he had become the best-selling living conductor in Germany. Indeed, despite the very limited repertoire that he had committed to disc, he was apparently the second-highest selling conductor of all there, behind only Herbert von Karajan.
Marin Alsop (1956-)
Alsop is one of the few women conductors who’ve really made a mark on the international music scene. Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony from 2002 to 2008, she also made history in 2007 as the first woman to be appointed music director of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony.