A Legend in His Own Time - Carlos Kleiber
With the passing of Carlos Kleiber on 13 July 2004, the world of music lost one of its most charismatic and enigmatic figures. He was known as a conductor who didn't like to conduct: "Only when his freezer was empty did he deign to pick up the baton, reported Herbert von Karajan (who, like many of his other colleagues, called him a "genius" - they were a two-man mutual admiration society). He lavished his genius on no more than a handful of symphonies by Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Brahms, and a scarcely longer list of operas by Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and the Strausses, Johann and Richard - a fragment of the repertoire conducted by his equally famous father Erich, another titan, who tried to thwart his son's musical career (yet Carlos used his annotated scores).
A recluse who spoke six languages fluently but never granted interviews because he claimed that "when I talk, it's rubbish", Kleiber would repeatedly leave orchestral musicians notes filled with polite suggestions (these became known as "Kleibergrams"). Players and singers respected and revered him. "He notices everything," Plácido Domingo declared. "I try to please him all the time, not just because I want to please him but because I know he's right."
Once his career was established, Kleiber refused to accept a permanent position and even declined the Berliner Philharmoniker's invitation to become Karajan's successor. He once told Leonard Bernstein that he wanted to grow old in a sun-drenched garden, only eating, drinking, sleeping and making love. Much critical ink has been spilled over the precious few engagements to which he grudgingly consented - principally with the Wiener Philharmoniker and Amsterdam Concertgebouw orchestras and at some of the world's operatic shrines: Vienna, Munich, Bayreuth, London, Milan, and New York - reviews couched almost exclusively in superlatives bestowed on few other musicians of the late 20th century. Kleiber was truly - and for once the tired cliché is apt - a legend in his own time.
Carlos Kleiber was born in Berlin on 3 July 1930 but grew up in Argentina after his family (who were not Jewish) fled Nazi Germany in 1935. Following the war, he studied chemistry in Switzerland, but an overwhelming love for music led inexorably to his 1954 debut, conducting an operetta in Potsdam, East Germany under a pseudonym. He served as répétiteur of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf from 1956, becoming its conductor two years later, was at the Zurich Opera from 1964-66 and first Kapellmeister at the Württembergisches Staatstheater in Stuttgart for three years from 1966. He first appeared at the Vienna State Opera in 1973 conducting Tristan, the work with which he made his Bayreuth debut the following year, debuted in 1974 at Covent Garden and La Scala (conducting Der Rosenkavalier, one of his father's specialities); he made his Berliner Philharmoniker debut in 1982 and his first appearance at the Met in 1988.
A perfectionist in extremis, Carlos Kleiber disliked recordings - he once said that "every unproduced record is a good record" - but those he made have naturally come to occupy a special place in the medium's history. Deutsche Grammophon had the good fortune to be the label with which he was associated, a collaboration that began in 1973, when he agreed to overcome his antipathy to the microphone and travel to Dresden to record Weber's Freischutzwith the great Staatskapelle, an orchestra that had enjoyed a close relationship with his father. London's Daily Telegraph, typifying the praise showered on it from all quarters, described the new set in terms that could well be applied to every work this artist touched: "Kleiber ... brings such vitality, freshness of tone and buoyancy of rhythm to the orchestral score and his choice of tempi shows that he has rethought this music ... by discovering how to be faithful to the composer's spirit without transgressing the letter."
Subsequent releases over the next several years spread the appreciation of his phenomenal gifts to an adoring international public and fellowship of music critics: Beethoven's Fifth from Vienna in 1975 (about which one reviewer wrote that "it was as if Homer had come back to recite the Iliad"), Beethoven's Seventh from Vienna and Johann Strauss's Fledermaus from Munich in 1976, Verdi's Traviata from Munich in 1977, Schubert's Third and "Unfinished" from Vienna in 1979, Brahms's Fourth from Vienna in 1981 and, finally, a return to Dresden for Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (which he had conducted at Bayreuth from 1974-76) in 1982.
It is from those last three studio productions that the performances collected here have been taken. When Kleiber's extraordinarily concentrated reading of the "Unfinished", recorded in the Musikverein's Golden Hall in September 1978, was last reissued, the English critic Richard Osborne wrote: "The genius of Kleiber's performance is his willingness to characterize both the music's profound melancholy and its bustling energy: in other words, to sense its physical chronology and its spiritual one."
In December 1979 the German critic Peter Cossé was in the Musikverein when Kleiber conducted Brahms's Fourth Symphony at the Wiener Philharmoniker's subscription concerts. "One experienced the four movements,Ó he wrote, "as a great concentrated Passion of compositional logic and integrity and, in the same moment, as a network of emotions and images, whose richness and atmospheric ambivalence seemed to find a miraculous sense of consolidation or, more precisely, reconciliation in the final Passacaglia.Ó CossŽ happily found that the "fascinating details and solemn splendour of the interpretation were captured without any loss of tension or spontaneity" when Deutsche Grammophon recorded it three months later, between 12-15 March 1980.
And, finally, the Dresden Tristan. Kleiber was dead set against a live recording, with - as DG's then Head of Production Hans Hirsch recalled - all its imponderables, such as the dangers of singer fatigue and inevitable compromise solutions in the final takes that would disadvantage the orchestra (seated, incidentally, with violins divided left and right, violas half-left behind the first fiddles, cellos half-right behind the seconds, and basses in a reduced half-circle behind the seconds and cellos). Kleiber's demands were extreme and unprecedented, even for him: 10 full orchestral rehearsals beginning in August 1980 in Dresden's Lukaskirche, 20 sessions in October with the whole cast present at all of them, recording the work in sequence from beginning to end (with, as is customary, the preludes to Acts I and III left to last).
Perhaps the only surprise in casting was that of Margaret Price in a role she was never to sing on stage, but this turned out to be pure inspiration: the youthful freshness, ardour and lyricism (as well as flawless German diction) of the Welsh soprano's Isolde, as Hans Hirsch notes, dovetailed with Kleiber's conception of the work, and indeed, by general consensus, the part has not been sung on record before or since with such sheer, unremitting vocal beauty.
Kleiber's nerves were famously exposed whenever he made music, and, inevitably, in an undertaking as gruelling for him as committing Wagner's Tristan to disc, they frayed - sadly - towards the end of the sessions. In the midst of René Kollo's recording of Tristan's delirium in Act III, the conductor stormed out, and the passage had to be synchronized later, though no trace of that would be apparent to listeners. Presciently, his producer Werner Mayer had let the tape machines run during rehearsals of the preludes in August. Carlos Kleiber never entered a recording studio again.