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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Carlos Kleiber: Not a great conductor

By Norman Lebrecht / July 30, 2004

An exclusive new clique has formed in the world’s concert foyers. Following the sad death of the conductor Carlos Kleiber, a notoriously elusive performer, a silken cord of snobbishness now separates the few of us who witnessed the master in the flesh from the multitudes who merely heard his achievements on record. Those who saw him in action have something to tell the grandchildren, the others don’t. So there.

Obituarists last week drove themselves into a frenzy of hyperbole, describing Kleiber as the ‘greatest’ of all conductors, whatever that overworked superlative might mean. Certainly, he was a meticulous interpreter who elicited intricate, often essential detail from densely written scores. At his Covent Garden debut in June 1974, he spent three hours rehearsing 80 seconds of the Prelude to Der Rosenkavalier – an object lesson to musicians everywhere that structure stems from the phrasing of the opening passage.

Kleiber had a knack for striking a tempo that felt ‘just right’, nowhere more so than in the Beethoven Fifth Symphony where, in a Vienna Philharmonic recording for Deutsche Grammophon in 1975, he struck a perfect balance of the ominous and the numinous. Remarkably, he did so at a metronome marking that was just eight points off the head-over-heels 108 which the composer had erratically inscribed in his score, a lickety-split misguidance that commonly dashes literalist interpreters onto the rocks of musical ridicule. In a century of symphonic recording, only Toscanini, Giulini and Kleiber have ever got away so fast in the Fifth. Of the three, Kleiber sounds measurably the most relaxed and correct.

He got what he wanted out of an orchestra by means of intense self-preparation, rather than intensive rehearsal. While he demanded more time than most, he scorned the likes of Sergiu Celibidache who required 15 sessions to prepare a Bruckner symphony and once lampooned the mystic Celi in a letter to Der Spiegel, submitted pseudonymously. Kleiber, after rehearsal, would leave polite notes on players’ desks: ‘This bit I think could be a bit more forceful and audible. Many thanks and kind regards, C. Kleiber.’

Such courtesies, among many gentle anecdotes, established his image as an intuitive conductor of a severely restricted repertoire. At the height of his activity, in the mid-1970s, he confined himself to eight operas, two dozen symphonies and some out-of-the-way pieces like Dvorak’s uneven piano concerto, which he recorded unforgettably with the Russian pianist, Sviatoslav Richter. He spent the next 30 years reducing his range. In his final decade - and he was a vigorous-looking 74 at the end - Kleiber averaged less than one gig a year. He was not a recluse, as was widely misreported on the basis of his lifelong refusal to give a media interview. On the contrary, he maintained a wide network of musical friendships, cordially refusing all invitations

Carlos Kleiber was therefore famous not so much for conducting, as for not conducting. He liked to say that he worked only when his deep-freeze was empty and he did not have to work much to fill it. Aware of his scarcity value, Kleiber stuck out for record fees – a million dollars, reputedly, for his last trip to Japan. He cancelled more than he conducted and was quickly bored. At his last London appearance, a 1986 Verdi Otello at Covent Garden, he seemed to me to be marking time. The phrasing was exquisite but the Moor’s jealous rage was never musically aroused. Some who knew Kleiber thought he no longer liked music, maybe actively hated it.

Speculation aside, one cannot ignore the chilling influence of his formidable father. Erich Kleiber, a demanding man, went through 126 rehearsals before he conducted the premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in 1925, an event that marked the dawn of operatic modernism. Erich left the Berlin State Opera in 1934 in principled protest at Nazi policies (he was not Jewish) and spent the war years in Argentina, where young Karl became Carlos. The family returned to the Soviet sector of Berlin, where the State Opera now stood, and suffered western suspicion in consequence. In the early 1950s Erich brought professional rigour to Covent Garden and made some superb Decca recordings but he was only 60 when he died in Switzerland, embittered and unfulfilled.

Carlos, who had been warned off conducting by his father, took up the baton regardless and proceeded to perform Erich’s favourites – Beethoven's fifth symphony, Brahms’ fourth, Der Rosenkavalier, La Bohème and Wozzeck. He was music director for a couple of years at the Stuttgart Opera, but he held no major posts and made his name by word of mouth. Unfortunately, it was a name he shared with his father. Freud would have had a field day.

Whatever conditioned his attitude towards music he kept his feelings to himself. He lived on a mountain slope outside Munich, unreachable by phone. He had (like his father) a son and a daughter; his wife, Stanka, was a Slovenian ex-ballerina. Her death earlier this year plunged him into depression and he arranged to be buried beside her, in Konjsica. It took almost a week for the world to become aware of his passing, a lapse that would undoubtedly have pleased this most taciturn of men rather more (one suspects) than the immediate issuance of a DG souvenir album.

A maestro dies, a myth is born. Among the posthumous flowerings is the icon of Carlos Kleiber as a perfectionist who could not allow himself to conduct a work in which he might trangress a composer’s sacred intentions. The source of this theory is Harvey Sachs, a biographer of Toscanini and Solti, who recalled in the New York Times meeting a distressed Kleiber during rehearsals for a 1978 Tristan and Isolde at La Scala. ‘Why do I keep trying to conduct?’ Kleiber exclaimed. ‘I can’t get them to understand what I want. I shouldn’t be conducting at all… I can’t bear to let the errors go uncorrected...’

That agony of self-doubt has been experienced by everyone who ever raised a baton above an open page and a seated mob. I have heard variations on it from Tennstedt and Solti, Jansons and Gergiev, Muti and Abbado. It’s an occupational wail.

Those who mythologise such moments misunderstand the musical process. Every conductor knows that if perfection were attainable we would never want to hear another performance and there would be no further need for conductors. What a conductor does is his or her best to get close to a composer’s intentions. What the composer intends is for the music to be heard, faults and all. No composer would agree to wait a lifetime for an error-free performance. I don’t believe that Carlos Kleiber, a decidedly practical man, imagined otherwise.

Kleiber was a magnificently gifted conductor who chose, for reasons known only to himself, to deny himself to music. He gave very little, and then he took it away. He was the greatest non-conductor we have ever seen.

> Carlos Kleiber Catalogue

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001