Worst Classical Music Publication in the World?

The once prominent ‘BBC Music Magazine’ let me down in its April issue.

Its cover feature, called “The 20 Greatest Conductors of All Time,” was beyond disappointing. Being a classical music jockey I could not wait to read the results. I was eager to perhaps discover what method could possibly allow any publication to define the variables which make for great conducting, and to have the chutzpah of picking the best!


Carlos Kleiber - greatest conductor of all time?!

Carlos Kleiber

I steeled myself and turned the page to see the BBC’s results. The #1 winner was Carlos Kleiber. Years ago I was lucky to have heard him conduct a beautiful rendition of Richard Strauss’ opera Die Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera House; but Kleiber’s orchestral repertoire was relatively puny, seldom heard except on a few non-opera DVDs. Kleiber was a committed and powerful musician, but conducting symphonic music is different from conducting opera , and to my thinking (and others) Kleiber never conducted enough symphonic concerts to qualify for #1 in the world, aside from his talent and great rapport with his musicians.


Deputy Editor of BBC Music Magazine Jeremy Pound must have received complaints about attempting to rank the world’s conductors of both today and yesteryear.

Mr. Pound defended the Kleiber choice by noting:

“asking 100 of today’s conducting greats to name their idols and inspirations was a fascinating experience. Not least when so many named Carlos Kleiber, who in the course of his whole lifetime conducted fewer concerts than most of them manage in just a couple of years. But Kleiber’s incredible attention to detail, sheer enthusiasm for music, and astonishingly accomplished level of performance could never be doubted – perhaps “less is more” is the real path to true greatness?”

And so this is my statement to Mr. Pound:

Unfortunately not, and for rather obvious reasons. The rather ridiculous implication that “less is more” in conducting… means nothing and is further evidence of your magazine’s falling judgement. This is not the first time! I (and others) are wondering what was the method used by BBC to decide upon history’s greatest classical conductors?

The answer floored me. BBC contrived to poll 100 of today’s conductors world-wide, each of whom named his/her three “favorites”; so of 300 (100×3) named conductors, many of whom were named multiple times, the 20 most frequently mentioned would be ranked as one of these superstars.

Unfortunately, subjectivity worms its way into the results of such processes.

Nonetheless, I was unprepared and rather shocked by the outcome. It took me several seconds to recover before I began analyzing the BBC’s voting process itself:

The 100 conductors polled were scattered world-wide; some would never or seldom have heard many of the great conductors, even on recordings (the contending conductors “of all time” included those deceased, of course). Even when heard once or twice or even when conducting different works, a conductor comes across differently not only to the audience, but to other conductors too! Also, it’s difficult to compare an interpretation heard 5 years ago to one heard last week. In addition, prejudice is an inevitable variable when ‘experts’ of any profession are asked to evaluate their peers. Furthermore we can assume that many conductors polled had been exposed at best to only fractions of the number of potential contenders, and of their work. Plus, retrieval of one’s reactions to interpretations from several years back, is difficult and quite subjective.

Bottom line: the entire BBC process was likely a sham.

Yes, we know that conductors’ skills (their interpretations) come across differently to both audiences and to music reviewers, but perhaps even more to the world’s other conductors! Some will compare others to what they think the composers intended, or rejoice in greater experimentation with a work’s tempo, volume, judgment as to what the composer intended .


April 2011 cover of BBC Music Magazine

April 2011 cover of BBC Music Magazine

Worse, most of those conductors polled likely heard only a fraction of the candidates performing a small subset of their repertoire, usually electronically (much different than attending live concerts). Worse, the range of quality of the 100 conductors polled must certainly be huge… but they were each given an equal voice in the poll, many likely reaching their decisions in minutes if not seconds, with little or no chance to think through the many variables involved, let alone the fundamental challenge of naming only the three greatest!


For all the above reasons, I assume a high degree of arbitrariness in the BBC feature article. Alternative approaches, such as interviewing or polling as many orchestral instrumentalists as possible (who have been exposed to many more conductors than conductors themselves are exposed to) or even the world’s better known newspaper critics, whose explicit job is to separate the wheat from the chaff!

After seeing that Kleiber was ranked #1, I had little argument with #2 and #3 (Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado) although many would place them elsewhere among the top 20. …..but where was one of the world’s most favored superstars Georg Solti? . Mariss Jansens? Yuri Temirkanov? Leopold Stokowski? Perhaps Loren Maazel? Simon Rattle? James Levine (like Kleiber, mostly opera, some symphonic)? Serge Koussevitzky? Riccardo Muti? None of those made the list. Instead, the top-20 list celebrated Mackerras, Davis, Monteux, Fricsay, Barbirolli, Gardiner, Boulez,and Harnoncourt. Excellent conductors but among the top 20? Why was Toscanini ranked as low as 8th and George Szell 14th? And so forth.

My musician son, Perry, called the magazine’s system “manifestly absurd”.

Of course I acknowledge that no matter what, results from polls are usually seen by others as subjective; had the magazine acknowledged publicly that its process would de facto result in subjectivity, then few would complain. Of course it’s impossible to avoid some level of polling subjectivity, but not in the manner the BBC pursued.

Unfortunately, this one article has not been the magazine’s only recent weakness.


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