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Conductors BigJim
Sat Jan 5 2002 05:17
Hey everyone,
I'm definitely no expert in classical music, but I'm trying to learn more. So, I'd appreciate anyone answering these questions, being I'm curious about your opinions:

What makes a conductor good or bad? Is it personal taste on part of the listener, or is there some objectivity and standards?

Who are some of your favorites and least favorites, and why?

Thanks for any thoughts.

re: Conductors Judge Jules
Sat Jan 5 2002 22:25
Hello, Jim, and may I wish you many happy years of listening to classical music. You certainly picked a wide field to explore with your question!

There are some basics that a conductor has to have - being able to get musicians to give of their best (individually and collectively), a love and understanding of the music, something of his own to say about that music, knowledge of what particular instruments can do.

But there are many variables too. Some conductors cajole the players, whereas others bully them. Some are great at accompanying soloists, whereas others are too egoistic for that. Some have a gift for remaining true to the music, whereas others seem to have to put their personal hoofprints all over it.

Favourites/non-favourites? This is perhaps the most personal of all decisions - in music as in so much else, one man's meat is another man's poison. I, for example, cannot abide the interpretations of Simon Rattle which, for me, are far too careful and self-conscious - "look at me, how clearly I've got this orchestra to play". In my book that robs the music of its soul. Many others, though, think he's the best thing since sliced bread. Another I cannot take is Christian Thielemann, who pulls most any music about unmercifully. A particular favourite of mine is a guy called Carlos Kleiber, and many would agree, BUT he conducts only a small number of pieces and there are those who think him a pretentious shyster.

This is a lot at once and I don't know if it's been any use. Let us know if there's more you'd like to ask or share.
re: Conductors mirth
Sun Jan 6 2002 05:04
From your presentation,I can see you are a senior classic fan.This makes me so happy and a little surprised.You list some of the conductors which you like or don't like.But I feel a bit curious about why these conductors are exclusively contemporary ones.Among those conductors alive fifty years ago,there are many worthy of talking about such as Toscanini,Furtwangler,Karajan and so on.They set up an era of conducting that we now can't exceed over.About the art of conducting,I relatively appreciate the type who can let listeners have brand-new experiences every time they listen,namely can add his comprehensions and thoughts to the compositions.Among comtemporary conductors,I relatively like Hanoncourt,which conducted 2001 New Year Festival of Vienna.
He is the authority of interpreting the compositions of Johann Straus.I hope to listen to your feeling about those conductors passing away.
re: Conductors Judge Jules
Sun Jan 6 2002 11:35
Hello again! You're quite right - one must not forget the great conductors of previous generations. I guess in the end it comes down to which recordings you have in your own particualr collection.

I have very little by Toscanini - Brahms' 1st Symphony and a miscellaneous orchestral concert. I enjoy these recordings but I don't think they are the last word on the music - for me there is not enough repose in them when the music needs it.

Furtwangler I must leave to others, I'm afraid. Too often when he conducts I hear him, not the composer. Maybe it's because I hear his recordings only on the radio, but he's not my kind of conductor.

Karajan is sometimes marvellous (for example I think he was a great concerto accompanist, from the Dennis Brain recording of the Mozart Horn Concertos onwards, and I'd take his recording of Brahms 1 over Toscanini's any day) but sometimes awful - he goes through some Beethoven like he was on a high-speed train!

Harnoncourt, as you say, is very much alive and still working. At his best he brings together the insights of period performance and modern instruments in a marvellous way. At his worst, I find his performances sometimes a bit like Rattle's, more concerned with technique than artistry.
re: Conductors BigJim
Mon Jan 7 2002 21:41
Hi Judge, Thanks much for you response. You answered my questions just perfectly, and were very helpful. So it sounds to me like it's pretty subjective, more or less. I just remember hearing Bruno Walter do Brahms and then hearing Leonrad Bernstein do the same piece, but Bernstein sounded pretty atrocious to me while Walter's interpretation sounded "correct". But I guess that's just my taste. Somebody else would probably think the opposite.

I took your recommendation and listened to Kleiber, Thielemann, and Rattle doing Beethoven's 7th, a piece I know well enough to hear to compare the three. I have to agree with you: I liked Kleiber a lot, Rattle was so-so, but Thielemann was soul-less, as you pointed out (perhaps 30 seconds per clip on Amazon isn't a fair test, and I might have been swayed by your opinion, but I think you're correct).

I'm also curious about how music directors and soloists work together for a concerto. Does the conductor always have his way? Or does it depend on who the soloist and conductor are? I can imagine some conflicts arising due to differences in opinion.

Thanks again,

re: Conductors Judge Jules
Mon Jan 7 2002 22:43
Hello again, Jim. Another deep question there! I suspect much of this does depend on the individual personalities involved, but in the end I would imagine the soloist's view would prevail if there were irreconcilable differences of interpretation. Interesting you should mention Bernstein, because this happened to him. He and Glenn Gould once performed Brahms' 1st Piano Concerto together, and Lenny had to announce before the piece started that he disagreed with Mr.Gould's (very idiosyncratic) view of the solo part. Lenny was not someone to be "backward in coming forward" in his own right, so I guess that's an illustration of the weight given to the soloist's preferences!
re: Conductors
Tue Feb 19 2002 21:58
I see you mentioned Brahms Piano C No with Bernstein and Gould. I would certainly like to acquire that recording, if it is available. Surely the Brahms # 1 is the greatest of all Piano Concertos. Tremendous drive and tonal beauty with the usual Brahm's infelicities perhaps.
re: Conductors Judge Jules
Tue Feb 19 2002 22:49
I'm not sure, but I suspect that recording of Brahms 1 with Bernstein and Gould is not available at the moment (if anyone reading this knows better, please enlighten us!) as my memory of it dates from LP days. You may have a better chance of finding it in LP dealers' lists.

I feel it's very hard to nominate one work as the greatest piano concerto (or the greatest anything, really, though I break my own rule for "The Marriage of Figaro" which I think is the greatest thing of any kind that man ever created!). Forced to choose, I might go for Brahms too, but - though, like you, I love no.1 - I think I'd go for no.2 for its greater variety of mood.
re: Conductors
Wed Mar 6 2002 02:10
Hi Jim!

Great question, and frankly I don't think anyone, no matter how great their knowledge, can really say who is the best or perfect conductor.

As I've grown in knowledge, I've also learned what I like. You will too! When I started into classical I thought the only conductor of note was HvK. Now, I've grown to love the work of the great Austrian Conductor Gunter Wand. He recently died, but lives on in his music, especially his Bruckner. If you ever want me to share some ideas about CD's to try, email me.

Julian Benedict
re: Conductors claudius
Fri Mar 8 2002 23:30
Hello, Jim. For me, and not only, the best conductor of our time is Claudio Abbado. You can listen his new recording of Beethoven's symphonies: the most innovative and exciting since the last 50 years. Abbado brings our minds and our souls to think again, and perharps really for the first time, about what is music and what you can linsten and play it. Abbado says us:
LISTEN to your soul.
Sorry for my English.
re: Conductors claudius
Fri Mar 8 2002 23:31
Hello, Jim. For me, and not only, the best conductor of our time is Claudio Abbado. You can listen his new recording of Beethoven's symphonies: the most innovative and exciting since the last 50 years. Abbado brings our minds and our souls to think again, and perharps really for the first time, about what is music and how you can linsten and play it. Abbado says us:
LISTEN to your soul.
Sorry for my English.
re: Conductors mcdade
Mon Mar 18 2002 16:13
I think the first point I'd like to make is that I have different favourite conductors for different repertoire.

In Mahler I find Walter almost unbeatable (though he didn't include all the symphonies in his repertoire)
In Bruckner and Strauss I have yet to hear anyone who gets closer than Karajan (though like Julian I find his Beethoven hideous)
Beethoven is more problematic - I like a lot of Furtwangler and Klemperer but each of them had their weak spots in this repertoire. Toscanini is either very good or horrible. Honourable mention has to go to Bohm's Pastoral - a little recording miracle.
Mozart is probably even worse since I find it is down to individual performances - eg Kleiber's Figaro, Karajan post war Vienna flute.
Brahms I would divide equally between Furtwangler, Jochum and Walter.
As for Wagner Bohm is consistently good (and his Tristan one of the very best) though Furtwangler carries almost all before him despite being dull in the studio and badly recorded live. His dull bits are more interesting than most other people's career high points
As far as live conductors go the two I will not miss at present are Haitink (perhaps surprising but I don't think his recordings do him justice) and Harnoncourt - often maddening but always worth a listen. Barenboim has grown too in recent years. I haven't heard much Gergiev so he might be added to the list.
As for the downside - Rattle certainly, Mehta (how does this guy still get work?) and Ozawa (yawn) spring immediately to mind - oh and I mustn't forget my old friend Muti - terrible!
PS Sony re-released that Gould/Bernstein Brahms 1 last year and it is impossibly awful - a piano player who hated Brahms tied to the back of the most sloppily indulgent conducting you'll ever hear - yuck! I had to listen to Gilels/Jochum to reassure myself that it is a great masterpiece!!
re: Conductors Judge Jules
Mon Mar 18 2002 21:29
Welcome back, mcdade! Yes, as you've obviously worked out it is I behind this (somewhat shaming) moniker. The forum was playing tricks with my attempts to log on a while back, so I re-registered using the first username I could think of (to check a few things out that way) and then found that was the only name it would let me use, and I can't be bothered to change back again! I know Gould was a fruitcake, but why DID even he record so much music he clearly disliked?
re: Conductors mcdade
Tue Mar 19 2002 14:06
I recognise those views anywhere - and call me David!

I don't know the reason why Gould worked in this way. I suspect it was probably behind his reason to jack in live playing full stop. I suspect the treadmill for virtuosi in the 50s and 60s was at least as tiresome as it is now and I wonder how much control Gould really had over his repertoire. You can see the dollar signs in the eyes of the CBS executives at the thought of two of their most marketable artists - Bernstein and Gould - sharing a platform.
re: Conductors Judge Jules
Tue Mar 19 2002 23:15
On the subject of Bernstein and Brahms, do you by any chance know the recording with Andre Watts of the Brahms B flat? I have the LP and have always enjoyed the performance, though Watts was in such titanic technical form when he recorded it that I miss a little bit of the "grit in the oyster" that you get from the sainted Gilels/Jochum combo. Listening to it again I suppose there's a bit of the Flash Harry about Lenny and the NYPO in places, but it remains a performance for which I have great affection.
re: Conductors mcdade
Wed Mar 27 2002 13:08
Changing tack a little I never enjoyed Lennie's NYPO in mainstream Romantic repertoire because the orchestral sound always seemed to be too febrile and thin. He always seemed to be too interested in making emotional points at the expense of well groomed orchestral sound - essential in Brahms if no one else! In some ways that is why Masur was a good thing for the NYPO for all his faults - he made them play in a central european way again. That said neuroses and wild emotion are not contradictory to good orchestral playing - just look at Boston under Kousevitsky!!
re: Conductors Judge Jules
Wed Mar 27 2002 21:11
Or the Leningrad (as was) Phil.under Mravinsky, at times anyway. Fair points indeed.
re: Conductors J Hill
Thu Mar 28 2002 01:54
Yeaaaah. Mravinsky rules!! Forget all other Pathetiques. That string sound he gets is 3-D, 4-D maybe. Karajan's with BPO is very nice. Smooth (flat), too polished, blah. It's perfectly fine until you hear Mravinsky. When you do you'll never go back (unless you prefer inauthentic, overprocessed NICE playing). Then by all means. But really, HVK is OK. He got some great playing out of the BPO, etc (for a Nazi). But Mravinsky, that was a conductor! And Furtwangler. There's really no one like them. Period, er, full stop. Just listen to WF with the BPO or VPO in a Brahms symphony or some Wagner. He's a daredevil with an orchestra. When Furtwangler gets going there's no other impression than that he's racing along (figuratively) at breakneck speed and every time you think he's going to crash--he leaps out of danger. There is something awesome, dark and almost ominous about a Furtwangler performance... So I nominate those two. Why, they doth bestride the world like colossi...
re: Conductors mcdade
Thu Apr 4 2002 14:21
I agree that Mrvanisky captures the excitement of the Pathetique I do miss the elegance of a Karajan in this music - Tchaikovsky after all aspired to Mozart and Chopin of all composers. I agree also that Karajan can seem too cool. Personally I have always foudn the sound of the VPO ideal for Tchaikovsky combining the sheen of the BPO with a certain slavic quality.

As for Furtwangler - I agree totally though there were risks involved - when things went wrong they could go very wrong indeed. Also he had a tendency to be very dull in the studio. That said his Schumann 4 should be in everyone's collection and he does the difficult finale of Brahms 4 better than anybody. I think it was Menuhin who said of him that the most difficult thing in the world in music was to be flexible within a system - I couldn't have put it better myself. Don't be fooled into thinking everything was done on the wing - he thought very deeply about all the music he played - that's the difference between him and the people who imitate him nowadays.
re: Conductors
Sat Apr 27 2002 23:09
Speaking of conductors - anyone have an opinion on Rafael Kubelik. I have the complete Dvorak's Symphonies conducted by him with the Berliners and somehow it just did not seem that great (especially 7 & 8). Seemed a bit too fast for my liking.
re: Conductors J Hill
Thu May 2 2002 18:21
My personal preference for the Dvorak Symphonies is Kertesz and the LSO: lively, spontaneous, awesome brass sound and overall a well recorded and engineered cycle.

With Kubelik we have a great conductor from a great tradition. Sad thing about Kubelik is that most of his career was spent conducting non-Czech orchestras. No matter how good both conductor and orchestra can be in those combinations, there's something about Czech conductors on "home turf". For me it's a certain lyrical "swirling" in the strings - it's in Vltava, it's in Taras Bulba, many of the Slavonic Dances, etc... Only Czech orchestras make those kind of passages sound magic.

Regarding tempos, Vaclav Talich was always perfect, in my opinion. Never heard anything he did that didn't have exactly the right tempo to get the maximum from the music and the musicians. That is why he also goes on my list of greatest conductors along with Mravinsky and Furtwangler.
re: Conductors mcdade
Wed May 8 2002 13:38
I agree completely with the point made above about Kubelik in Czech music - indeed I often tend to forget about him being Czech.

This point though shouldn't mask the fact that Kubelik was a very great conductor and that under him the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra became a fabulous band - the wind playing was in a league of its own.

I have always felt his recorded legacy is undervalued. The mood is shifting away from the Bernstein view of Mahler thankfully and Kubelik's Mahler symphonies are at last starting to get their due. The 1st is very well known but if you don't know his Mahler try the 3rd or the 7th - you won't be disappointed.

As for Talich what can I say? As near perfection as you'll get.
re: Conductors Judge Jules
Sat May 11 2002 17:17
Talich's "Slavonic Dances" are the best I've heard. He brings out all sorts of highlights one hadn't noticed before. Don't know his wider repertoire so well but I'll bet he does much more than Czech music very finely.

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