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In Memoriam Carlos Kleiber

Carlos Kleiber, 1930–2004: On July 13, in a little Slovenian village named Konjšica, died one of the most exciting, one of the greatest conductors that classical music ever knew.

To lump Carlos Kleiber together by saying "one of the..." is already doing him injustice, too unique was this son of the conducting great Erich Kleiber. To describe his repertoire as narrow would be euphemistic: he conducted the same works over and over, to the point of obsession. Brahms's 2nd, Beethoven's 5th and 7th, Schubert's 3rd, Tristan, Die Fledermaus, La Traviata, and Der Rosenkavalier. Not because he had to (from the 70s on he didn't hold fixed positions as conductor of an orchestra or opera house), but because he wanted to.

Herbert von Karajan, who thought Carlos Kleiber to be a genius, said once—not entirely without malice—that it was too bad that such a great musician didn't really like music. This was, in part, a comment on the notorious difficulties that were involved in getting Kleiber to conduct at all. Allegedly, responding to Karajan asking him why he did not conduct more, Kleiber said that he conducted only when his freezer was empty. Kleiber's genius had him recognized as the most exciting conductor of his time, especially after Bernstein was dead. He was offered almost anything (unlimited rehearsals, any amount of money) to conduct—and seldom did.

Kleiber was difficult, gratuitously so, it seemed, and he was almost autistic in his shyness (Wolfgang Sawallisch reports having to push timid Carlos unto the podium, wherefrom on, once he was on it, everything went just fine), and he undoubtedly was influenced by his Über-Father, Erich, who did everything to discourage his son from a conducting career. Like many a musical genius (and some who think they are), Carlos Kleiber seemed driven to "non-functionality," as Joachim Kaiser from the Süddeutsche Zeitung puts it. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and, to a lesser degree, Glenn Gould come to mind.

Claudio Abbado thought Kleiber the best Tristan conductor, even before Bayreuth, in 1974, got to see, hear, breathe the magic that Kleiber unfolded on the 'Green Hill'. Tristan und Isolde transfigured Kleiber, Wolfgang Sander from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports of Kleiber being described as suddenly growing during an Tristan performance, his limbs seemingly extending; Kleiber transfigured. And the Wagner opera he so loved brought him to the brink of collapse on several reported occasions.

If Bernstein knew how to begin a work, Kleiber knew how to end one. Which, with his unsurpassed sense of musical architecture, was one of the reasons why critics were so effusive in finding neologisms of praise for him (or leaving their column blank, declaring a Brahms E-minor symphony so "complete" that they were at a loss for words). The end of a work, the beginning of memory, and the point from which a successful journey can be judged... Now we are with Carlos Kleiber himself at that point. He died and was buried on his mother-in-law's estate in Konjšica, age 74. Blessed are those with memories of live performances, but even those who rely on the handful of outstanding recordings available can look back and see that this, for all the incongruencies, was one of the most successful journeys any musician had ever undertaken.

See also: The Legacy of Carlos Kleiber on Disc


Anonymous said...

Very nice eulogy, and informative. Just one correction: The estate on which C. Kleiber and his wife are buried in Konjšica, Slovenia, belonged to his wife's family, not C.K.'s mother as stated in your article:

Otherwise, thank you for this eulogy.

Anonymous said...

Just watched on french television a rehearsel with Carlos Kleiber - the ouverture of Der Freischtutz. Beautiful to watch his verve and eagerness to discover with the orchestra the essence of the ouverture. Using poetic sentences to describe what Von Weber meant. But the most beautiful thing about Carlos Kleiber is that he lacked vanity, a 'gift' that even during rehearsels shadowed the perfomances of Von Karajan and Bernstein.

Erik Zwaga, Amsterdam

he came from heaven said...

Carlos Kleiber lacked 'musical' vanity, I feel he saw himself as a hard worker, trying his utmost to transanslate notes on paper to the real meaning of the composer.
He was vain however.But the was really very beautiful - and stayed handsome in his later life.