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On Carlos Kleiber (1930–2004)

When Carlos Kleiber died this summer, at the age of seventy-four, the obituaries made it clear that the musical world had lost an extraordinary figure. What made him so extraordinary as a musician they did not say, and indeed one can hardly conceive of a pithy characterization of his distinction that would fit into a short notice. In any case there was much else to say. Carlos Kleiber was the son of another major conductor, Erich Kleiber, who left Nazi Germany in protest and settled in Argentina. His repertory was highly and very idiosyncratically constrained, his recordings very few. Very large fees were required to coax him out of the seclusion of his later years. The Compleat Conductor by Gunther Schuller, more than five hundred pages of arduous technical matter by an eminent conductor-composer, breaks into a small paean to Kleiber as a “virtuoso with a mind,” a “musician/philosopher” in the great tradition of twentieth-century German conductors headed by Wilhelm Furtwängler.1

The Maestro Myth by Norman Lebrecht2 includes both Carlos and Erich Kleiber in a chapter called “The Mavericks”; it is a measure of the shallowness of this only-too-well-informed survey of modern conductors that the maverick quality adduced by Lebrecht refers to career path and personality, not musical interpretation. Kleiber’s recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has been said again and again, and with the greatest of conviction, to be the benchmark, even better than his father’s, “must be heard to be believed” (Schuller), “as if Homer had come back to recite the Iliad,” and so on, and I must say it bowled me over when I first heard it, in the summer of 1995—I still remember the occasion and the date. There is nothing maverick about the interpretation. It is characteristic of its time, only more intense and better (indeed fantastically) controlled. The very slight dragging of the tragic march at the end of the first movement, the clarity of the double basses and the drum in the third, the grandeur of the horn (bridge) theme in the fourth—these are things any maestro would wish for and work for. Kleiber dwells a little longer than most conductors do on the symphony’s opening wake-up call, da da da DA—da da da DA—(I would prefer both of the DAs lengthened even further), but he can hardly be called eccentric on this account.

What jumps out at me as I listen again is Kleiber’s remarkable legato, or long-range legato, if that is the term, the unobtrusive way he makes phrases of music flow into one another—as in the successive pair of themes that open Beethoven’s slow movement, to take one conspicuous example among many. This “flowing” quality is for me the key to Kleiber the musician. It may also be unique, and it is certainly hard to analyze or describe. Yet easy and wonderful to hear! As one musical phrase follows another, B seems to do more than just follow A, or even follow from A—yet it does not seem to emerge from A in any obvious way or grow out of A or anything “organic” like that. Metaphors suggest themselves from the sphere of relationship rather than teleology: B acknowledges A, alert to their mutual existence in the same force field, A creates the space for B yet it also feels incomplete without B, and by accepting that space B speaks to A’s vulnerability. Whether B itself is closed or open, C will respond accordingly. So as the music goes by there is a sense that the sound sequence is earned, self-aware, and ultimately humane in an unusual way.

That Kleiber’s famous Fifth is far from maverick does not mean that he shrank from individual interpretations.3 Another of the most deeply enshrined masterworks of the classical canon, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, is a case in point. The first movement begins, it will be remembered, with a hushed line in the cellos and basses, first edging up slowly and then sinking down into a long note of preparation, preparation for rustling sounds that grow more and more agitated. Their conclusion is co-opted by French horns playing a single note, hovering in tonal space, unaccompanied—another note of preparation, now for the symphony’s most famous melody, the one that has been permanently scarred for some of us by the rune “This is, the symphony, that Schubert wrote and never finished.” Kleiber had his own idea of how this melody should go.

Since the horn call makes a transition to something less agitated, almost all conductors slow the passage down at some point, and many make it sound portentous. In Kleiber’s case this quality is functional; the horn call serves as a portent for his treatment of the coming melody not as a simple lyric outpouring, but something subdued and reflexive. I think the musical text will bear this reading, arresting in itself and functional, once again, in that it looks forward to the passage where various instruments toss the melody back and forth in counterpoint, a little later. Only at this point, where Schubert brings the dynamic up from pianissimo to piano, does Kleiber gives the melody its full lyric rein; for all its current entanglements, it now sounds direct, free, and open (not all of the melody fig-ures here, only a fragment of it). His is therefore a notably dynamic reading. In place of the usual sequence, sinking line—agitation—lyric melody—developments, Kleiber gives us sinking line—agitation—uncertainty—lyric certitude.

This in turn affects the emotional climax that occupies the middle of the movement, the development section. In Kleiber’s dynamic reading this becomes powerful and austere, even harsh, and not perhaps to everyone’s taste. It speaks for Schubert the grim balladeer of forest demons, not the lyric singer of miller-maids and wintry wanderings. The sudden appearance of sharp dactylic rhythms at one key juncture sounds like the crack of doom.

Kleiber does not quite vitiate the repetitious effect of the rest of the first movement; the responsibility for that rests with the composer, and all the help in the world may not be help enough. But Schubert closes the movement memorably, with something he had learned from Beethoven, reducing the opening sinking theme into moaning figures repeated again and again by various instruments and instrument choirs, high and low. Kleiber makes the music swing slowly, the repetitions flowing in and out of one another, without pressure but with the inevitability of a flywheel of enormous weight. A Romantic image of depletion—and after several hammer-stroke chords have shut it down, one almost feels the motion continuing in the silence. Symphony first movements often aren’t intended to end too conclusively. There are more movements to come (in this case, only one).

The second movement also ends with a passage that “liquidates” its first theme, though in a very different way. The first violins in this passage remind me of a great silent crane dropping the remnants of the theme into astonishing tonal slots with perfect precision. Nothing is silent, of course, and in Kleiber’s performance the effect is, once again, altogether humane, not mechanical—tender, in fact; but I cannot get the crane out of my mind.

The most routine of my metaphors, flow, owes whatever force it has to the image of smooth, inevitable, yet spontaneous forward motion, which is itself a metaphor for life (and among Schubert’s many brooks, even the sad ones have their life-affirming currents). Kleiber made authorized recordings of only four operas in his whole career, one of which he disowned—others were issued on obscure labels—yet he recorded Die Fledermaus twice, in 1975 and 1986 (live). The music of Johann Strauss has real sparkle, without much in the way of propulsive energy, and an operetta is a long time to keep sparkling—a good deal longer than the typical set of five waltzes placed end to end in “The Blue Danube” or “Tales from the Vienna Woods.” Strauss keeps up interest by means of many canny changes of tempo, meter, and rhythm (fast to less fast, waltz time to polka time, upbeat rhythms to downbeat rhythms, and so on). Kleiber’s “fluid sense of phrase…the naturalness of transitions, the play of relaxation and tension, the push, pull and sweep,” in the words of Will Crutchfield, are a special delight in this music, the source of the sheer verve of the performances as a whole.4

This Vienna-born, Buenos Aires– raised musician had a weakness for the popular music of his birthplace, evident when he conducted the Vienna New Year’s Day Concert twice, in 1989 and 1992, at a time when his reclusiveness had already set in. These treacly events had never heard the like since Willi Boskovsky and have certainly never heard the like since. Kleiber’s concerts were recorded live on Sony and remain in print, the second even more brilliant than the first.

  1. 1

    Gunther Schuller, The Compleat Conductor (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 193–194.

  2. 2

    Birch Lane, 1991.

  3. 3

    Kleiber recorded Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, and 7 by Beethoven but never Nos. 3 (the “Eroica”) or 9, and it is claimed he performed No. 6 on only one occasion, in November 1983; a cassette tape made at the time comfortably passed the test for remasteringtwenty years later (Gramofilereview, www.gramophone.co.uk). This was the last of Kleiber’s recordings to appear, issued in 2003 by Orfeo, a label which had much earlier also caught an amazing live performance of the Fourth Symphony with the Bavarian State Orchestra.

  4. 4

    Crutchfield at Large,” Opera News, December 22, 1990, pp. 45–46.

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