[LATEST: The documentary Carlos Kleiber—I Am Lost to the World is scheduled for European release on March 18 and US release on April 26 (at Amazon).]
[UPDATE: Charles Barber, who studied with Kleiber, has given us some compelling observations in the comments section.]
We can’t get enough of musical recluses; the Glenn Gould phenomenon appears to be alive and well, and now, there’s an uptick of interest in the conductor Carlos Kleiber, who died in 2004. On YouTube, some kind soul has just posted an English-subtitled version of “Traces to Nowhere”, a documentary with Placido Domingo, Michael Gielen, Kleiber’s sister, and others. There’s another documentary floating around, this one called “Carlos Kleiber—I Am Lost to the World”; a DVD release is coming from C Major Entertainment
but no word on when. (Riccardo Muti appears in the trailer.) Last September BBC Radio 3 aired an excellent documentary; there’s a Mediafire link posted in the comments here and on the CK Wikipedia page. (By the way, for those Brits who like to bash the Beeb, this American is green with envy; can’t imagine NPR ever doing a spot like this.) Charles Barber, one of literally a handful of people who got to study with CK, has a biography due out this summer. And for years, pirate labels in Japan and Italy, including one called the “We Love Carlos Society,” have been trading bootlegs, even though all of them feature the same old pieces.
So there’s a lot of hype surrounding CK, but there’s substance behind it.
From what I’ve seen and heard, he brought an incredible level of concentration to his music-making. Instead of trying to put his personal stamp on the music by (for example) yanking the tempo around, he re-imagined the character of each note—the timbre, the attack, the phrasing—so that while the interpretation was outwardly straight, the music had a wholly organic vitality that sounded like no one else. There’s a moment in his filmed Vienna Philharmonic performance of the last movement of Brahms’s Second Symphony that shows what I mean.
Starting from 7:35 (eight bars before letter Q in the score), the orchestra has a sequence of a slurred sixteenth-dotted eighth figure followed by a quarter, repeating for eight bars. Brahms says più forte (louder) in the fourth bar of this passage, and fortissimo (still louder) in the sixth. Every other conductor I’ve heard (and I have 20+ recordings of Brahms 2) just plows through the entire passage at the same undifferentiated forte (here’s an example at 7:29). CK not only pays attention to the dynamics, but also throws on the voltage with his gestures at the sixth bar (7:43), so that the entire orchestra digs in for those last two bars. The effect is so startling that Amanda and I both jerked up when we heard it for the first time, but now I can’t hear the passage without it. In the video you can also see that Kleiber danced on the podium, but instead of gyrating around to convey a generalized excitement, it was as if the music were made visible to the players. (Not the audience; it’s not pretty to look at!)
The price of this perfection was that in the latter decades of his life Kleiber conducted extremely rarely (sometimes not at all in a given year), and he almost always conducted the same pieces (even though he apparently had a vast knowledge of the repertoire). In his last decade he seems to have conducted only two programs (someone correct me if I’m wrong):
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7
Beethoven: Coriolan Overture
Mozart: Symphony No. 33
Brahms: Symphony No. 4
It seems that Kleiber was one of those musicians who was constantly frustrated by the gap between what he heard in his head and what he could realize in performance. So, the rarity of his appearances–which allowed him to virtually dictate the number of rehearsals, and of course, his fee–doesn’t seem as willful or eccentric as it initially appears. His scarcity appears to have been a tactic to ensure that he would only work under the right conditions, with enough rehearsal time, with musicians willing to follow where he led.
Could such an artist even exist now? Granted, it has been only six years since Kleiber’s death, but he had become an institution many years before he died. I just wonder whether anyone–orchestras, audiences, patrons, corporate sponsors, et cetera–would be willing to support an artist who was so uncompromising in the pursuit of his idea of artistic perfection (and aware of his own worth) that he could perform the same few pieces over and over again, on his own terms. For example, he once got an Audi as payment for a concert, and if this seems odd, he was apparently close to the head of the “culture and communication” department at Audi. A carmaker has a “culture and communication” department? And they’d want to support a conductor who almost never conducted?
In an age where every conductor has to jet around the world and direct a Mahler cycle to get street cred, Kleiber’s later career is an irrational anomaly, an indulgence that a shrinking classical music industry can no longer afford. Maybe his idea of perfection was too narrow, too idiosyncratic. Maybe he should have been more tolerant of the realities of music-making, and that way he would have realized more of his innate abilities. But Kleiber’s seeming eccentricities appear to have enabled his genius. And if current realities and institutions wouldn’t support those eccentricities, will we see anything like this sort of fanatical genius ever again?