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.

The Maestro Myth by Norman Lebrecht 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 …

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