Aureole etc.




Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line




Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

CARLOS KLEIBER (1930-2004)

 

The death of Carlos Kleiber at the age of 74 (and characteristically, his death on 13th July took almost a week to become public) ends perhaps the most infuriating career of any of the great conductors of the last century. His last public concert – with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1999 – came some years after his last studio recording; and of all the great conductors he had by far the most limited repertoire. Like Sergiu Celibidache – whom Kleiber recalls in many ways – his was a career which was unsatisfactorily incomplete.

 

Yet, however incomplete it may be there exists a considerable artistic legacy, although a certain blindness to Kleiber’s greatness can have the effect of clouding some of his real achievements. So much, for example, has been written about his recording of Beethoven’s Fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic that it is often overlooked that Kleiber doesn’t actually get the first bar’s four note motif right. Nor is he a persuasive conductor of the Prelude to Tristan where Wagner’s tempi are all but sublimated. Yet, forget these technical details and the performances that Kleiber gives us were as musically perfect as any. His conducting technique was so expressive, so flexible, that at times he seemed as if he was improvising. Like Furtwängler no two performances were ever the same and like both his father, Erich, and Fritz Busch, the clarity given to the grand line of a work was seamless. There were few mannerisms – though Kleiber did have a tendency to over-emphasise crescendos to the point of starting them earlier than written – and at times one was less aware of dynamics in a performance of a well known work than with other conductors. Yet, at his best Kleiber was an incandescent re-creator of great music and a conductor of such virtuoso brilliance that it seemed impossible to be excluded from his music-making.

 

Such greatness – effortless as it was – belied the preparation that Kleiber put into his performances. Rehearsals were intensive and - like Celibidache and Wand – he demanded, and got, the rehearsal time he wanted. It was this search for perfection that made Kleiber so hysterically unreceptive to bad reviews. One of the most notorious of these ‘bad press’ incidents happened in London in 1981 when the LSO persuaded Kleiber to conduct a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh and Schubert’s Ninth (a repeat of a concert Kleiber and the orchestra had given in Milan days before). Edward Greenfield’s negative review ensured Kleiber never conducted an orchestra in London again. Kleiber forbid the BBC to broadcast the concert and the tapes were destroyed. Incidents such as these were few and far between, but it was characteristic of Kleiber to be so vulnerable to negative publicity; he never gave an interview, thus perpetuating the myth of his reclusivity.

 

Kleiber was born in Berlin on 3rd July 1930 but moved to Argentina soon after when his family left Nazi Germany. Kleiber almost instinctively knew what his vocation would be – to the extent that his father expressed displeasure at the young Carlos’ unfortunate interest in music – and so it was that the young Kleiber took the then conventional route of working his way up through European opera houses, first in Düsseldorf and then in Zurich. Stuttgart played an important part in Kleiber’s operatic life in the mid 1960s, as did Munich later – and his special relationship with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra became a natural extension of operatic Munich. The early 1970s saw his debuts at the Vienna Staatsoper, Bayreuth, La Scala and Covent Garden. It was only in the late 1980s that Kleiber made his debut at The Met, although he had regularly conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra throughout the previous decade.

 

Kleiber never held any post with a symphony orchestra, preferring instead to guest conduct those orchestras who could most meet his demands. The Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic and Concertgebouw all secured his services (the Berliners even electing Kleiber to succeed Karajan, only for him to turn down the job.) Kleiber negotiated all his contracts personally – often with a handshake rather than in any written form – and never had any agent to deal with managers on his behalf. This sometimes led to odd payment arrangements – one of his last concerts involving payment in the form of a sport’s car rather than cash.

 

But it was the sheer sparseness of the concerts that he gave that is astonishing for such an important conductor. Between 1978 (in Chicago) and between that final concert in Cagliari in 1999 Kleiber gave just 157 concerts with eight different symphony orchestras, an average of seven a year. Some works – such as Beethoven’s Sixth – he conducted just once (1983) whilst other works he conducted merely a handful of times - Ein Heldenleben (twice) and Butterworth’s English Idylle (five times.) Only Beethoven and Brahms were conducted with any regularity. In stark contrast, Kleiber conducted over 520 opera performances over a 35-year period, the majority of those having been with the Bavarian State Opera. At Covent Garden there were fabulous performances of Elektra and Rosenkavalier and at Bayreuth he conducted Tristan for the three years between 1974 and 1976.

 

That Elektra, released some years back on Golden Melodram (a Slovenian label, and Kleiber was buried in Slovenia) still has the capacity to electrify, even though the sound is poor (this was an in-house recording). It’s an important document of Kleiber at the peak of his powers – has Strauss’ score ever sounded more violent and more turbulent than it does in this 1977 performance? It’s also important because it demonstrates those essential characteristics of a Kleiber performance – crystalline textures, subtle dynamics and absolute control at all the pivotal moments. Yet, perversely, the recording demonstrates a constant throughout Kleiber’s operatic career – his inability to cast productions completely successfully. Gwyneth Jones’ Chrysothemis is poorly sung, and a similar problem exists with his casting of her as the Marschallin in both a 1977 Munich production of Rosenkavalier and another one in 1979. Marion Lippert in a 1971 Elektra from Stuttgart is also uncomfortable as Chysothemis, yet that is slightly offset by a wonderfully sung Klytemnestra from Martha Mödl and a powerful Aegisth sung by Windgassen. When it came to Tristan there could also be controversial casting choices: Catarina Ligendza – a regular Isolde for Kleiber at Bayreuth, Vienna and Stuttgart – never really settles into the part but perhaps most controversially was his insistence on Margaret Price as his Isolde for his studio recording of the opera done with the Dresden Staatskapelle. The most sumptuously lyrical Isolde on record, Price is either to your taste or she is not.

 

One could argue that Kleiber’s judgment when it came to the suitability of releasing some of his live recordings was also defective at times. The recent Beethoven Sixth on Orfeo is extraordinary is some ways (notably for some really beautifully judged orchestral playing) but in others – its extremes of tempi especially – it seems not to represent Kleiber at his best. On the other hand, Kleiber forbid Sony to release a 1983 performance of Ein Heldenleben with the Vienna Philharmonic because he was unhappy with it: listen to the performance and one wonders what Kleiber could object to. It is incandescent, and as perfect an example of ‘clock-time’ being meaningless as in any recording of the work I know. At less than 38 minutes it is fast - but it never sounds it – and the architecture of the work has never appeared so convincingly done as it does in this performance.

 

And that is the colossal scale of Kleiber’s life and death. There exist some of the greatest recorded performances of symphonies and operas anywhere in the catalogue (are there many people who would deny that his Der Freischütz is the greatest opera recording ever made?) Kleiber does what every great conductor does – he brings to a work something personal and unique. There is little – if any - Kleiber that remains to be discovered but the legacy we have is as important, and in many ways more important, than some of the legacies of great conductors who performed and recorded with a considerably greater degree of vicissitude than Kleiber did. His death is a significant loss, but given Kleiber’s rejection of music in his last years not one that should be mourned because of what he did not conduct.

 

Marc Bridle

 



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