The 25 greatest conductors of all time

14 July 2023, 13:44

A young Marin Alsop, Sir Simon Rattle, and Seiji Ozawa conduct their respective orchestras.
A young Marin Alsop, Sir Simon Rattle, and Seiji Ozawa conduct their respective orchestras. Picture: Getty images
Classic FM

By Classic FM

They are among the most admired and feared figures in classical music. Here are 25 of the most talented, revolutionary and formidable classical legends of all time...

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A conductor is an orchestra’s guiding force, and over the last few centuries many maestros have risen to prominence for their prolific podium performances.

A host of men and women have held the baton for the world’s leading ensembles with trailblazing conductors like Sir Simon Rattle and Marin Alsop becoming household names beyond the realm of classical music.

But what makes a conductor great? Is it their ability to keep tempo, a quirk or flair which gives their performance that je ne sais quoi, or an overarching executive presence which makes players feel like they’re in safe hands?

Our list of 25 of the world’s greatest conductors sees a mix of all three. We explain through each choice what makes a maestro a master, and why these conductors are cemented as some of classical music’s greatest.

Read more: What do conductors actually do? Sir Simon Rattle has the answer.

Simon Rattle's conducting tips

  1. Sir Simon Rattle (b. 1955)

    Rattle rose to international prominence as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s. In 2002 he won the highly-coveted position of principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, before returning to his home country in 2017 to become the London Symphony Orchestra’s music director. His next move sees Rattle return to Germany as the chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, a position he starts during the 2023/24 season.

    Read more: The iconic time Mr Bean played ‘Chariots of Fire’ with the London Symphony Orchestra at the 2012 Olympics

    Simon Rattle conducts the LSO in London's Trafalgar Square

  2. Marin Alsop (b. 1956)

    Marin Alsop is one of the podium’s most prolific pundits. Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony from 2002 to 2008, she made history in 2007 as the first woman to be appointed music director of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony. In 2023 she was named the artistic director and conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.

    Marin Alsop masterclasses: what is conducting?

  3. Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989)

    Austrian conductor, Herbert von Karajan was a prolific conductor, holding principal positions at both the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic (a role he held for 25 years) during his lifetime. The maestro, who had links to the Nazi party prior to and during the Second World War, was occasionally met with protests when travelling internationally for work, including prior to his 1955 concert at Carnegie Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic. However, majoritively, Karajan is remembered for making over 2,000 recordings, and conducting with his eyes closed. Watch below.

    Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 / Karajan · Berliner Philharmoniker

  4. Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

    The Italian conductor conducted at the greatest opera houses and directed the world’s finest orchestras. These included La Scala opera house in Milan, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera, and the European Union Youth Orchestra. He was also the founder and director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and Orchestra Mozart. Abbado also succeeded Karajan at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989 – a hard act to follow – and succeeded magnificently.

    Claudio Abbado - Mozart Requiem - Lacrimosa

  5. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

    Leonard Bernstein was always captivating to watch – for either his extreme movements on the podium or his emotionally charged and unusual approach to rhythm and tempo. He was a champion of the works of Gustav Mahler, conducting two separate cycles of all of the composer’s symphonies for audio recording.

    His life story will soon be told in an upcoming Netflix biopic, Maestro, starring and directed by Bradley Cooper.

    Read more: ‘Maestro’: First look at Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Netflix biopic

    Candide Overture: Leonard Bernstein conducting

  6. 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.

    Leopold Stokowski directing the Philadelphia Orchestra in the early 1940s
    Leopold Stokowski directing the Philadelphia Orchestra in the early 1940s. Picture: Getty

    Stokowski Rehearsal - Barber 'Adagio for Strings'

  7. Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

    Frustrated that seemingly no-one could conduct his music properly, Berlioz started conducting it himself. He notoriously had the amazing ability to hear what each single instrument was doing even when the whole orchestra was playing together.

    Painting of Hector Berlioz
    Painting of Hector Berlioz. Picture: Getty
  8. Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957)

    Many conductors today still consider Toscanini the greatest ever conductor of Verdi’s music. 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.

    Conductor Arturo Toscanini directing an orchestra
    Conductor Arturo Toscanini directing an orchestra. Picture: Getty
  9. Gustavo Dudamel (b. 1981)

    Dudamel shot onto the international stage in the early 2000s. He rose to fame as the music director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela before taking on the music director position at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009.

    In 2021, Dudamel was named the Paris Opera’s newest music director and was contracted to stay for six seasons. However, in 2023, Dudamel made the shock decision to step down early just two years into his role, to reportedly focus on family.

    For the 2026–2027 season, the Venezuelan maestro will move to the New York Philharmonic to take up the baton as its next music director.

    Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky's 'Hamlet'

  10. Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)

    Best known for his association with the LSO, Sir Colin Davis was 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.

    Handel: Messiah, Ev'ry valley shall be exhalted (Sir Colin Davis, Mark Padmore, LSO)

  11. Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)

    Nadia Boulanger made her conducting debut in 1912, at the age of just 24 and rose to become one of the most respected conductors and teachers of all time. She taught everyone who was anyone in the 20th century, from Copland to Elliott Carter. When asked by a reporter about being a woman conductor she replied: “I’ve been a woman for a little over 50 years and have gotten over my initial astonishment.”

    Nadia Boulanger conducting an orchestra at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 27th February 1963
    Nadia Boulanger conducting an orchestra at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 27th February 1963. Picture: Getty
  12. Seiji Ozawa (b. 1935)

    Seiji Ozawa broke new ground, not only as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s long-term music director from 1973 until 2002, but also for wearing a white turtleneck when he conducted. The Japanese maestro has conducted some of the world’s greatest ensembles, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and at the Vienna State Opera.

    Read more: Orchestra’s outer space Beethoven performance leaves conductor in tears

    Orchestra’s outer space Beethoven concert leaves legendary conductor in tears

  13. Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970)

    British conductor and cellist Barbirolli is most remembered for conducting the Hallé Orchestra, which he helped save in 1943 after the ensemble depleted to just 30 players during the war. Alongside the Hallé he also conducted the New York Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.

    John Barbirolli conducting the Halle orchestra in 1953
    John Barbirolli conducting the Halle orchestra in 1953. Picture: Getty
  14. Wilhelm Furtwängler (1896-1954)

    German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler was the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic between 1922 and 1945. He was one of the only leading conductors to remain in Germany during the Nazi regime. Despite Furtwängler’s open opposition to antisemitism, he was allowed to remain in his high-profile orchestral position.

    Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic during a rehearsal in 1947
    Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic during a rehearsal in 1947. Picture: Getty
  15. Otto Klemperer (1885-1973)

    Otto Klemperer was a conductor based during his lifetime across Germany, the United States, Hungary and Britain. He was a protégé of the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler and went on to conduct high-profile American orchestras including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic.

    Otto Klemperer conducting an orchestra in Germany in 1957.
    Otto Klemperer conducting an orchestra in Germany in 1957. Picture: Getty
  16. Nathalie Stutzmann (b. 1965)

    In 2021 the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) in Georgia, United States, announced Nathalie Stutzmann as its fifth music director. Not only was she the first woman to hold the position in the ensemble, she became just the second woman to lead a major American orchestra – the first of whom was Marin Alsop.

    National Anthem of Ukraine / Nathalie Stutzmann, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

  17. Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960)

    Dimitri Mitropoulos was a Greek conductor, composer and pianist. He was one of the first soloists with the Berlin Philharmonic to conduct from the piano, after the instrumentalist scheduled to perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 pulled out last minute. He led top orchestras, including Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

    Conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos at the Philharmonic concert in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna in 1960.
    Conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos at the Philharmonic concert in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna in 1960. Picture: Getty
  18. Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799)

    A violin virtuoso, a swordsman, a composer, and a leading conductor. Joseph Boulogne was one of the greatest musicians of the classical era. He conducted one of Europe’s greatest orchestras of his time – Le Concert des Amateurs, and at one time, was in the running for the music director position at the Paris Opera. The 2023 biopic, Chevalier, focuses on his journey in applying for the high-profile role.

    Read more: Chevalier star Kelvin Harrison Jr. on 18th-century virtuoso Joseph Bologne: ‘He could do everything!’

    Chevalier on-set violin teacher reveals how he taught Kelvin Harrison Jr.

  19. Sir Neville Marriner (1924-2016)

    British conductor Neville Marriner founded the world-famous chamber orchestra, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, in 1958. He was also the founder and first music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. 2024 will mark the violinist and maestro’s centenary year.

    Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields

  20. Georg Solti (1912-1997)

    Hungarian-British conductor, Georg Solti was the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 22 years. The legendary maestro also became principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1979 and remained in this position until 1983.

    Sir Georg Solti / Chicago Symphony Orchestra - BRAHMS Symphony No.1

  21. Bernard Haitink (1929-2021)

    Dutch conductor, Bernard Haitink was the long-serving principal conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He conducted the orchestra for more than 27 years, and also held music director positions at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

    Farewell Bernard Haitink | LUCERNE FESTIVAL

  22. Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004)

    Carlos Kleiber is widely regarded as one of the greatest conductors of all time. The Austrian maestro achieved success conducting both symphonic music and opera, leading productions at notable houses such as the Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera, Bayreuth, Zurich, Stuttgart, the Bavarian State Opera and the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. As an orchestral conductor, we notably worked with the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

    Carlos Kleiber: In Rehearsal & Performance | Documentary on the famous Austrian conductor

  23. Susanna Mälkki (b. 1969)

    Finnish maestro, Susanna Mälkki was the chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra from 2016-2023. She was the orchestra’s first woman to hold the position. Mälkki was also the first woman to hold the principal guest conductorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she has served since 2017. The Scandinavian maestro has also made history at some of the world’s most historic opera houses, including La Scala, where she was the first woman ever to conduct a production in the history of the house, and the Metropolitan Opera, as the first female conductor to be featured in the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series.

    Susanna Mälkki - Holst - Les Planètes

  24. Sir Antonio Pappano (b. 1959)

    Sir Antonio Pappano will become the London Symphony Orchestra’s next chief conductor in 2024, replacing Sir Simon Rattle. Prior to this appointment, the Italian conductor has served as the music director of the Royal Opera House since 2002.

    The Marriage of Figaro - Overture (Mozart; Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano)

  25. Daniel Barenboim (b. 1942)

    Argentine-born maestro, Daniel Barenboim, is known equally as a conductor and as a classical pianist. The conductor has served as the music director for some of the world’s best ensembles and houses, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris and La Scala in Milan. Perhaps most notable however, is his role in founding the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an orchestra made up of Arab and Israeli musicians which aims to aid understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

    Barenboim Conducts Smetana Má vlast