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Muti, Abbado, Jansons, Haitink.
Everything I've heard from Pappano has been terrific, and I wish he was recorded more.
Of course, we're not officially allowed to call any conductor "great" unless they've been dead for 50 years.
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What about Christian Thielemann? As far as I am concerned he betters Rattle in all the classical composers (Beethoven, Bruckner, Wagner and Strauss spring to mind, to name a few) and gives the Berlin Phil a distinctive cogent sound - something Rattle has lamentably failed to do.
I think this is an impossible question, though a very stimulating one. But living in a country that is far away from most important musical centers, I have often given serious thought to the question, What conductor would make me take a long trip just to listen to him? In standard repertoire I would travel to listen only to those that take risks and give characteristic and unforgettable performances. I have actually done this for Muti, Abbado and Rattle, and I am looking for a place and date where to go to attend a Harnoncourt concert. I did enjoy very much my trips to listen to those three conductors, but the most rewarding was Muti.
I just recently traveled across the U.S. to see Haitink conduct the Chicago Symphony in the Beethoven cycle that they are doing. Rather risky but absolutely first-rate performances. They have unhinged my molecular structure. I would not have expected Haitink to takes risks at this age, but he is, and he's getting away with it. Anyone who can take the now somewhat cliché 5th and make it sound fresh no doubt carries the mark of greatness. Then again, it is irrelevant to say he is the greatest. It de-emphasizes the importance of the music. It is important to remember that it is not a competition (though H. v. Karajan may have disagreed).
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Weirdly, many of the conductors listed are dead, though we are asked to discuss those currently practicing, and equally weirdly the repertoire discussion extends well beyond anything that could be construed as 'standard' on any measure. Add to that, this is a discussion of records, which are known to and heard by a minority of 'collectors', but surely the question is asking us about living practice? Here in London, Gergiev is surely the most fascinating, though people hardly know what they were hearing in his recent Brahms. In recent years I have heard many remarkable concerts in 'standard' repertoire by Boulez, Salonen, Colin Davis, and some amazing non-standard repertoire from Andrew Davis and Knussen. That's to miss out a lot of other outstanding conductors, I suppose, but the thing that excites me most these days is the propsect of a Gergiev concert.
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