Artist Profile: Carlos Kleiber

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Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) was an enigma. Few conductors cancelled as many performances as he did, or had such a restrictive repertoire. Yet many music lovers regard him as one of the greatest conductors of all time. He was a perfectionist, but also possessed of a rare lack of self-confidence. He wanted the absolute perfect result, and if he felt that it did not meet his expectations, well, that was enough. Many concert promoters, opera managers and record producers have no doubt agonised over the years over all the missed performances and recordings.

Foto: Johann242 / CC BY SA 4.0

Carlos Kleiber had a lot to live up to. His father, Erich Kleiber, was one of the great conductors of the mid-20th century. Almost as obsessed with the ultimate interpretation as his son. And Kleiber senior did not want his son to follow the same path. Eventually, however, Carlos defied his famous father and began to learn the craft of conducting at lesser-known opera houses in the 1950s.

He almost always used his father’s scores and recordings to prepare his own interpretations of the classics. Slowly but surely, word spread that he was an exceptional talent. Offers began to come in from major opera houses and orchestras such as the Bavarian State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic.

In 1974 he scored a huge success at the Bayreuth Festival with Tristan und Isolde, in which the two leading roles were sung by two Swedes, Catarina Ligendza and Helge Brilioth. Two years later, non less than Svjatoslav Richter attended one of the Tristan performances in Bayreuth with Kleiber conducting; according to Richter, the conductor was, as usual, dissatisfied afterwards. When Richter told him the performance was brilliant, he beamed: “Was it really good?”.

The 1970s also saw the first recordings for Deutsche Grammophon: Beethoven’s Fifth (1974), which was is sensational – transparent, elegant, yet fiery and to the point. He followed it up with a recording of the Seventh, in an almost equally miraculous performance. But in typical Carlos Kleiber fashion, only a few more recordings of symphonic music followed.

Kleiber was also a world star and the pressure on him increased. The cancellations began to come in, and the cancelled concerts outnumbered the ones that actually took place. His famous Dresden recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with Margaret Price and René Kollo, he refused for a long time to allow the record company to release. When he finally gave in, he told DG’s Peter Gülke that it had made him the unhappiest man in the world.

At the end of the 1980s, Carlos Kleiber withdrew more and more from the limelight. He occasionally conducted operas in New York, London and Vienna. For the most part, performances of works such as Der Rosenkavalier, La traviata or Otello were hailed as unique, unforgettable moments in which the interpretation felt at one with the music.

When Herbert von Karajan stepped down as director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989, Kleiber was one of the hottest candidates. According to some newspapers, he was even offered the post, but turned it down. However, he was much more receptive to conducting two New Year’s concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic (1989 and 1992), probably because he was particularly fond of Viennese music.

A closer look at what Kleiber actually conducted during his career reveals that he repeatedly performed works that he had memorised and learnt backwards and forwards, such as Beethoven’s Symphonies 4, 5, 6 and 7, Schubert’s 3 and 8, and Brahms’ 2 and 4. Rarely did he take the plunge into the unknown and unfamiliar. Was he simply afraid of losing control? We don’t really know why, as he gave only one interview, early in his career.

Kleiber retired in the early 1990s and returned to the concert hall only sporadically. He died in 2004 at the age of 74, a few months after his wife Stanislawa.

What was the magic of Carlos Kleiber? Despite, or perhaps because of, all the meticulous rehearsals he did with the musicians and singers, there was often something extra about the performance itself, a new dimension. You could feel the essence of the music, its soul.

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