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The website Bachtrack has just released its poll of (mostly) European classical music critics, choosing the top ten orchestras and top ten conductors in the world. It is a list designed to be argued with — as most such lists are — and a list with some very odd missing persons.

First, the primary news, which is hardly news at all: The top three bands in the world are Berlin, Vienna and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. These three orchestras top almost everyone’s list. If they hadn’t been in win-place-and-show, we would all have known the contest was rigged.worlds best_orchestra_2015_bachtrackz

The rest of the list includes, in order, No. 4 through No. 10: The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; The London Symphony Orchestra; the Berlin Staatskapelle; the Dresden Staatskapelle; the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. All perfectly deserving bands, although some people in Cleveland might be squawking.

Only two American orchestras made the cut, but then, the ranking was made by Europeans (with only a handful of American critics included), so the bias is natural — they haven’t had a chance to hear the American groups. And of course, it goes without saying (except I’m saying it here) that all such rankings are essentially meaningless and serve only to start bar fights.

I can’t have any real opinion on orchestra rankings, because I only know most of them them through recordings. I haven’t heard all of them live.

The top conductor of the day, according to Bachtrack, is Riccardo Chailly, currently head of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Also on the list: Simon Rattle; Mariss Jansons; Andris Nelsons; Riccardo Muti; Daniel Barenboim; Kiril Petrenko; Esa-Pekka Salonen; Yannick Nezet-Seguin; and Christian Thielemann. What? You say, no Bernard Haitink? No Pierre Boulez? There are several heavy hitters that are Missing in Action.

Such lists are inevitably subjective, and also political: Most of the critics gauged were German, so perhaps it is Valery Gergiev’s friendship with Vladimir Putin that has kept him off the list.

And I can say, from personal experience, that if you have only heard Haitink conduct on recordings, you may very well think of him as a timid kapellmeister. He is one of those musicians who seems to tone down his personality on recordings. I have heard him live with the London Symphony at the Salle Pleyel in Paris doing Beethoven’s Eroica, and it was one of the most exciting, and deeply moving performances I have ever heard. Live Haitink can be electric.

Still, for most of the baton-wavers, most of our experience of them comes on disc, and for most of them, the discs give us a very decent idea of their abilities. Chailly on disc is riveting. His Mahler Third is my personal favorite, and his recent Matthew Passion — swift enough to fit on two discs instead of the usual three — is a revelation.

So, I have an opinion on the top conductors, and it differs from Bachtrack’s list. My top conductors are not time-beaters, but have distinct personalities, so that you might hear a recording cold and think, that must be Gergiev, or that must be Pletnev. Many critics value the impersonal in performance: “Just the facts, ma’am,” and look for each performance to embody a Platonic ideal mystically assumed to be embedded in the score, with no “interpretation.” I don’t buy it. I want my music brought alive by someone who sees something in the music beyond the bar lines and semiquavers.

If I had a mission as a music critic for all those years, it was to make the case that music — particularly what is called classical music — is about more than entertainment, and that it has meaning beyond the mere patterns of notes on the page, and that musicians, no less than actors, must interpret the music, and bring their individuality to the game. No one wants a Hamlet where the best thing you can say is, “He stuck to the words on the page and didn’t try to interpret them.”

So, here is my list of the top conductors of the day, based both on live experience and on recordings: These are the conductors who give me exciting performances, show me something new, bring out the hidden, find the humanity behind the Pythagorean mathematics, and rattle my cage.

I can’t place them in order, like a horse race. So, as a group they are, in alphabetical order:barenboim

Daniel Barenboim — There is no doubt that Barenboim has ambitions of becoming the grand old man of classical music, and he has largely succeeded, taking up the mantle of a Furtwangler or Casals. There are times when his imitation of those giants of the past has been a kind of pastiche, an aping of idiosyncracies. But he has grown into a musician of considerable maturity and depth. The wishing-to-be has been overtaken by the has-become. His recordings of the Beethoven symphonies joins a few others as definitive, and his Bruckner recordings with the Chicago Symphony match brilliant engineering with perfect performances. boulez

Pierre Boulez — There is no one who does quite what Boulez does on the podium. His sense of color and balance is supernatural, and the crispness and cleanness of his performances are signature. He first became known to me through his recording of the Chereau Ring Cycle, where he managed to make Richard Wagner’s din sound like chamber music. His Mahler may be more “objective” and less manic than others, but no one makes the score more brilliantly etched. And he has a lock on the Second Vienna School. chailly

Riccardo Chailly — Over a long career, Chailly has found a corner all his own, bringing clarity and energy to familiar scores. His tempi tend to the speed-demon edge — he cuts an hour off the normal performance time for Bach’s Matthew Passion — but through some kind of maestro-magic, he makes those tempi expressive. Any performance by Chailly — especially with his house band, the Leipzig Gewandhaus — is worth hearing for what will be revealed. dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel — Yes, he’s the wunderkind and all that, and yes, there has been a kind of backlash against his celebrity status, but I heard him lead the Israel Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall playing the Tchaikovsky Fifth and that group of old pros — the kind of musicians who have played the music so many times, they don’t even need a conductor and who can be a little jaded — they looked like little boys being given a pony. Their eyes burned and they played like demons. I also heard him with his own LA Phil playing the Mahler First, and it was gangbusters. He’s for real. gergiev

Valery Gergiev — You have to see this guy on the podium; he’s all fingers. When he conducts, with both hands waving about spastically and each finger on each hand giving different cues, you have to wonder that his players can follow him at all. He has a very personal sound he draws from them: darker than other conductors, richer in the bass regions. I heard him twice in New York with his Mariinsky musicians dong Prokofiev and I feel I was given special insight into that composer. His recordings of Shostakovich’s “War Symphonies” are the best I know of that group of works. haitink

Bernard Haitink — There are unfortunately some musicians who just don’t record well. Yo-Yo Ma, for instance — his recordings are letter perfect and you could hardly ask for better, but they seem weak and pale compared to hearing him live, when you realize that you are, in fact, hearing God on the cello. Haitink can sound strait-laced on disc, but live, he can blow the roof off the dump. harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt — This is a man who can be so perverse that you want to strangle him, yet, at times, that waywardness means you understand something you never did before. He brought “original instruments” out of the dark ages, but even with modern orchestras, he is likely to shake things up. And even when he’s not playing bad boy, as in his recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, he makes a personal mark on the music. The world will be a lesser planet when he leaves it. pletnev

Mikhail Pletnev — Pianists don’t always make great conductors. Barenboim and Ashkenazy are two of the few, and Pletnev, who is as wild a pianist as he is a conductor, makes my case that music needs to be interpreted. His Eroica is my personal favorite, played as I have never heard it before, with different accents and rhythms that bring the old chestnut back to its rightful place as being revolutionary.Berliner Philharmonie Gruppenbild Dez Berliner Philharmonie Gruppenbild Dez 2011 253

Simon Rattle — From the beginning, when he was the upstart at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Rattle showed a talent for both new music, new angles on old music, and a general awakeness to the world and its music. When he moved on the Berlin, he was a race car driver given the fastest machine in the world. The recordings he has made with them are nearly perfect. There is a depth behind the sheen. He finds the wit in Haydn and the neuroses in Mahler, the Weltschmerz in Brahms and the impishness in Stravinsky. His range is spectacular.

That is my list. It has nine conductors. You get to choose the tenth.

celibidache conducting

Sergiu Celibidache has become a cult conductor. Perhaps it is because he had a reputation for playing music slower than anyone else. Perhaps it was because he despised recording and refused to authorize CD releases even of his live performances. Perhaps it was because he required of his orchestra unending rehearsals before performance.

The Romanian-born maestro died at the age of 84 in 1996, having left behind a very few studio recordings but a trove of taped concerts, never meant for public release. Eventually, many were released on the Deutsche Grammophon and EMI labels. Those who have heard them either love them distractedly or despise them profoundly. Few are left indifferent.

It took me a while to jump on the Celibidache bandwagon.

I first made his acquaintance with an EMI recording of the Beethoven Eroica Symphony, which he took at the speed of rush-hour traffic. It is a lugubrious affair. Admittedly, he found a great deal of sonorous sheen in the music but little of the fire that we go to Beethoven for.

Celibidache’s stated aims were to make his orchestra sound “beautiful” playing the music, which, as far as Beethoven goes, is fairly irrelevant.

Celi, as he was called, originally replaced Wilhelm Furtwangler as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic after World War II (and a short reign by the unfortunate Leo Borchard), when Furtwangler was under suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. Celi lasted until 1952, when Furtwangler, cleared of the charges, took back the baton.

Celibidache was influenced not only by the conductors he trained with, but by a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism, which reinforced his conviction that music exists only in the moment of its creation, and that recordings cannot capture the electricity of live performance. This was not just a question of technology, but of spirituality. Live music, for Celi, had a spiritual significance, making recordings something close to blasphemy.

It’s hard for me to know if this is true or not. I never heard Celibidache live. I have only the recordings, and most of them are frustrating at best. His tendency to play slowly, and his insistence on the surface sheen of the music, achieved through endless rehearsals, means his performances often lack much in the way of forward drive, and for most of them, any sense that the music might have any deeper meaning than its erotic surface. His Beethoven, in particular, feels neutered.

Yet, it turns out, Celibidache has the measure of at least one composer: Anton Bruckner. And has that measure as no other conductor has. Like Bernstein and Mahler, Celibidache and Bruckner seem to be soulmates. celibidache bruckner 4 cd

Because so many reviewers were raving about Celi’s Bruckner, I bought his EMI Bruckner Fourth on spec. It is a nearly 80-minute Fourth, longer by nearly 20 minutes than even that of Otto Klemperer, a notoriously slow conductor. It absolutely knocked me catawampus.

Bruckner is a composer one comes to late in life. A young man simply will not have the patience for it. The “tunes” are not particularly memorable, and the structure of the symphonies will seem, at a young age, desultory and aimless.

But the problem is that we expect from youth that our music will “go” somewhere, give us some good tunes in the meantime, and surprise us with interesting turns. That pretty well sums up Beethoven.

But Bruckner doesn’t do that, and many poor performances of Bruckner try to make him do that. Instead, Celibidache — and a handful of other great Bruckner conductors — recognizes Bruckner is not a journey, but a place: You enter into his sound world as you enter into a deep forest or a Gothic cathedral and you experience that world in all its corners and cavities.

It is possible to play music very slowly and merely make it dull. Lots of conductors do it in the post-Bernstein era. But it is also possible to do it and keep every musician in the orchestra on the edge of his seat, concentrating fully on every single note as if he were defusing a bomb. This is what Celibidache does with Bruckner. You come away from a performance drained completely. It is an expedition through a sound-universe and you are carrying your own staff and pack.

Such music, played in such a performance, is nearly a religious experience.

You are given a vision of the Burning Bush, the infinite “I am.”

I thought we had long ago left a world that could take a Bruckner without irony. It is that irony that gives Mahler his 20th-century cachet.

But Bruckner gives us a metaphor for the unmediated experience — direct apprehension of the divine. I recognize the irony in my own phrase — and it is the rare musician who can approach the music that way. Just as it is hard to be a true religious believer in an age of irony, so is it difficult to play Bruckner convincingly.

If you have not yet had the pleasure, I recommend to you Celibidache’s EMI Bruckner Fourth. I also recommend his DG Bruckner Eighth, packaged with the Schubert Fifth. It is odd to hear a Schubert B-flat where the slow movement is as long as the other three movements together, but it gives new depth to what has always been a Haydn-ish, breezy symphony. I’m not sure it is appropriate for Schubert, but it is interesting to hear.

As far as the Bruckner Eighth, this is one of the great performances of one of Bruckner’s greatest symphonies — an immense world that seems to extend aurally to the infinite.

I’m probably gushing too much like a schoolgirl, but classical music is supposed to give you a genuine experience, something more than the ordinary, something you will remember for your whole life as a turning point. The Celibidache Bruckner is one of those. Rare, exquisite, raw, profound, strong, lung-shuddering, eye-sobbing. You will feel those Wagner tubas in your sternum, vibrating.