Carlos, we hardly knew ye

[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?


About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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7 Responses to Carlos, we hardly knew ye

  1. Charles Barber says:

    Kleiber really was that good.

    The word ‘perfectionist’ does in some ways mis-shape the enterprise. I would substitute the words ‘honest’, ‘aware’ and ‘alive’ for everything he did. Perfectionism was just the start of it. In a world where conductors jet from one brief engagement to the next, dozens of times a year, we have come to think it normal that every concert should sound like every other concert. This was not the way for Carlos.

    His private repertoire was, indeed, vast. His public? By conventional standards, small. Across five decades he gave, by my count, 89 concerts. He gave just over 600 performances in opera. That’s it. But as Bernard Haitink has wisely observed, “Don’t be fooled by the small repertoire. He knew everything.” And it’s true. At the beginning I was often surprised by his knowledge of really obscure music. I once wrote a parody of 20th C compositional clichés for a school show, and he wanted to know all about it. Thank God he never conducted “Paralysis 69” or his reputation would have been ruined forever. He was interested in everything.

    Carlos rejected the mercantile, autonomic, repetitious brand of conducting that has come to predominate. As you correctly observe, he only worked when everything was right — and equal to the obligation. If it wasn’t, he cancelled.

    There was a quality of discipline AND rhapsody about every work he gave. His famous DVD of Beethoven Seven with the Concertgebouw is, perhaps, the finest proof of it. Look at his eyes, there at the top of the second movement. You’ll know what they summon. Unique. Breath-taking.

    He worked with a degree of emotional investment that, repeated every day, would have killed an ordinary man. And he knew it. Thus, he worked when able. He flew closer to the sun than any of us.

    Does this sound too fantastic? Perhaps. But here’s the test: talk to anyone who actually saw him work. Then, I believe, it will become clear. Carlos Kleiber was the greatest conductor of his era, possessed of an unmatched eloquence and conviction. Did he only give one performance of the Pastorale? Yes.

    Imagine what it must have been like to be there. So it was with everything he did.

    Thank you for an excellent piece.

    • Thank you, Mr. Barber, for the comments. We’re just starting out and haven’t done any work on publicizing our blog, so what a pleasant surprise to have a real expert! Of course, your phrase “emotional investment” captures what I see and hear in Kleiber’s performances better than anything I’ve said.

      I cut out from the post a comment that the available recordings seem to give a distorted picture of Kleiber’s repertoire in his earlier years. And this leads to another question: how did he end up this way, especially if he started out in opera houses (where I suppose he had to conduct a wide range of music, some of it undoubtedly thankless)? In other words, how did he evolve from being a Kapellmeister to an utterly unique phenomenon? I expect that your book will answer some of those questions.

      Finally, another word of thanks for going to such pains to correct the misleading assessments of Kleiber that persisted after his passing. And I’ll go to the shelves and watch that Beethoven 7 again forthwith.

      • Charles Barber says:

        Hi, Michael. Thanks again for yours, and congratulations on your new blog.

        I wrote the book because I was fed up with distortion parading as fact, most often proffered by people who never met the man. I knew Carlos for 15 years, and barely recognize the cartoon of him drawn by some in the commentariat. Left unchallenged, such nonsense passes into history, and 50 years from now it is all that will remain.

        Some believe that Carlos was a kind of Howard Hughes, minus the long hair and Mormons. That view is nonsense. He may have avoided the media. He certainly did not avoid his family, his friends and his fascination with wide parts of the world.

        Those who would turn him into a recluse miss the point. He loathed mere celebrity. He would not waste time trying to become celebrated. He never held a press conference, and never gave an interview (there may have been one exception, very early). He recused himself from all of that commerce, because he thought it silly and false. But no one should imagine that he became Saint Simeon Stylites, or anything like it.

        All of his friends will, I believe, tell you the same: this was an incredibly witty and charming man, possessed of a quirky humor on every occasion. He once sent me a pre-release of the Brahms VHS you embedded above. On its cover he drew graffiti over his face, with a question mark on his forehead. It was part of a running joke about bogus musical scholarship. No one mocked preening and pretense better than Carlos.

        You ask a good question about how the Kapellmeister became the genius.

        I try to answer that, and another of similar complexion: how did Karl become Carlos, and what does it signify? The book argues that this transformation was central to his art.

        Even so, as he would be first to insist, all that matters is the music. The rest is little better than gossip with footnotes. I hope the book does not disappoint too much, nor too many.

        All best to you and your colleagues!

  2. So nice to read this. I’ve become obsessed with Kleiber this year. I wrote a short blog essay about him earlier this year, which doesn’t cover any new material for you, but anything to turn people on to him.

  3. Charles Barber says:

    As you will know, ‘Corresponding With Carlos’ has now been released in the States, Canada and the UK.

    For your consideration, something from the book that is essential to understanding his art — and has to date been overlooked by many reviewers, at least in my view.

    “Carlos Kleiber combined the rigors of German analysis, form, and discipline with the expressive vitality of Latin dance, pulse, and joy. For nearly twenty years at the formative outset, a conductor baptized Karl gradually became Carlos.

    “He never turned his back on that fascinating cultural biochemistry. It would shape everything he did.”


  4. Dear Charles,
    I hope this reaches you.

    Until a few weeks ago, I was unaware of Carlos Kleiber.
    I’m 74 – the age he was when he died.
    I have been devouring him via your book, cd’s, dvd’s – and cannot imagine not having him in my life.
    As I watch him (especially Beethoven 4th and 7th)
    I’m moved to levels of ‘laugh-out-loud’ joy and ecstasy , while tears run down my face —–
    And as I watch him, the humanity of his words to you (as per your book) resonate – and I’m moved beyond anything feelingwise I’ve ever experienced.

    ….and I’m not even a ‘classical’ musician – am a jazzer!
    It was your connection to Marty Paich that emboldened me to write – that and your connection
    to Stan Getz whom I knew briefly – he recorded my song “Sweet Rain”.

    So….I’m immensely glad to be where I am now – having discovered such a life fulfilling ‘mentor’ as Carlos – never too late……….

    And deepest thanks to you for your book…..



  5. Hello, Michael. I just saw your kind note, and its happy connections. It’s amazing how these things work, eh? Stan was on our Music faculty at Stanford, and I ended up conducting a pair of concerts with him. Through Stan I met Marty, and ended up being his assistant in the last ten years. And one day, at his ranch in Los Olivos, I showed Marty the Concertgebouw films of Carlos leading the Beethoven. His reaction was identical to your own.

    When people come to music, honestly and with open hearts, the world is a wide and intimate place. Thanks for what you said.

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