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Carlos Kleiber - I am lost to the world
A documentary directed by Georg Wübbolt, produced by Bernhard Fleischer
Picture Format NTSC 16:9, Sound Format PCM Stereo; Languages: German and English; Subtitles: French, Spanish, Japanese; Region Code 0
C MAJOR 705608 [58:32]

Experience Classicsonline

This hour-long documentary DVD, which I assume was made for television, is one of two on Carlos Kleiber to have been released recently. The other is a film by Eric Schulz, ten or so minutes longer than this one, and released by Arthaus Musik [101 553 - review].
The director of this C Major production is Georg Wübbolt and his direction ensures that whilst most of the witnesses are laudatory not a few are puzzled by Kleiber the man, and in one instance dismissive of aspects of his personality. Clearly he was not an easy man. The story of his predilection for ‘Geishas’ was long known, but his appetites in general, not merely the sexual appetite, seemed to some dilatory or merely capricious. This documentary hardly resolves the dilemma of Kleiber, who seems to have been in thrall to the memory of his meticulous father Erich for much of his life, but it does paint a portrait of sorts of a man whose complexities were at least partially fathomable.
One interviewee, possibly significantly a woman, notes with a certain distaste that ‘he made fools of people, which wasn’t nice’. The element of caprice was certainly strong, the demands both unreasonable but in some cases - especially rehearsal time - not wholly unreasonable. But there was also a meticulous, almost hyper-sensitive quality too; he would refuse to conduct the second act of an opera because he feared that he’d failed in the first act; he had to be reassured, like a child, cajoled, pushed, almost thrust back on, but often he simply left anyway, and went home.
Kleiber’s mother was Jewish and the family left Germany in 1935, after the Nazis took power. They journeyed to South America where Erich - whom Michael Gielen calls ‘The Commander’ and Wolfgang Sawallisch calls a ‘Dictator’ - was busy conducting. There is a good amount of film of Erich conducting; a small, compact man, with hooded unblinking eyes, directing orchestras with short, unostentatious, businesslike gestures. He was everything that his son Carlos wasn’t. He was controlled, prepared, and in charge. Whereas things seemed to be in control of Carlos, whose stream of consciousness conducting, arms windmilling in an agony of desire in Rosenkavalier, suggests an out-of-body compact with the music that his father would never have countenanced. But Carlos, when not boring orchestras with his finicky explanations, often poetic in the extreme - nothing is guaranteed to annoy an orchestral musician more than non-specific verbiage - was also something that his father was not; he was funny. A rehearsal extract demonstrates that he could make the musicians laugh, and ensure collaboration through complicity, not as his father had done, by bludgeoning the musicians.
We hear from many musicians; Riccardo Muti talks admiringly of Kleiber, in English; we also hear from Ileana Cotrubas, Peter Jonas, and Otto Schenck and Kleiber’s doctor Otto Staindl are also enjoyably encountered. Ioan Holender speaks with a certain patrician hauteur. Most agree he conducted too little, but was paid an awful lot. We also hear from Kleiber himself, in a 1960 NDR radio interview. His letters are read in English voiceover, not very well, but which nevertheless supplies a real need since he was had an almost pathological aversion to journalists, and thus interviews.
Toward the end of his life his repertoire had dwindled to almost nothing, as had his concert-giving, his fee for one famous one-off concert in 1996 being a new sports car. He retreated to Slovenia, birthplace of his ballerina wife, to die alone, his body undiscovered for a day or so. And yet I’m sure it can be argued, though this documentary doesn’t seek to argue the case, that Kleiber achieved his own degree of resolution. His childhood had been fractured, his first language naturally German (Karl) but his youth requiring him (Carlos) to be multi-lingual. There are hints that both his parents killed themselves. Erich denigrated his early conducting attempts, and Carlos came late to music. It was something of a small miracle in fact that he achieved independence from so powerfully centrifugal a force as Erich.
In the end this documentary raises more questions than answers. Carlos was a sensualist, money-conscious but not apparently status-obsessed, an indifferent pianist but a master conductor - one whose need for a singing and expressive narrative sense in his conducting set him apart. He was so good an opera conductor not because his repertoire was so small, but because he knew the score inside out. His tortured sense of inadequacy perhaps sprang from hearing too often and too loudly the admonishing words of his ruthless father: the fewer works he conducted, and the better he knew them, the less often he would hear his father’s posthumous scorn. Or maybe it was something else entirely. Until there is a biography perhaps we will never truly know.
Jonathan Woolf




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