Sunday, May 27, 2018

Carlos Kleiber

Here is another bit of information unintentionally gleaned while perusing the internet. My interest in orchestral music began long ago, probably back in elementary school when I first played clarinet in the school band and orchestra. It became an on and off passion after I put down the licorice stick after high school and began playing the piano in college. Since that time I've attended many concerts in Chicago and elsewhere, and was privileged to have seen in person a number of the great conductors of the 20th and 21st centuries. Those I haven't seen live, I've been made aware of, watching numerous performances on TV, and listening to the local radio station, WFMT, one of the few remaining broadcast stations in the country devoted to classical music. But one major conductor eluded me all those years, until now.

It wasn't that I was unaware of the name Carlos Kleiber, or never heard recordings of his performances. It's just that those recordings were so rare, and the discussion of his work so sparse, that I never bothered to give him a second thought.

The other day I was on YouTube, searching for performances of Beethoven symphonies. Say what you will about YouTube, but the fact remains that you can find on that site, along with every last bit of detritus the world has to offer, some of the most edifying, magnificent, elevating, and life affirming videos as well, despite the annoying commercial breaks inserted at the most inopportune times. This is what I found:

I may have heard Kleiber conduct but until last week I had never seen him at work. It's obvious from this film made in Amsterdam, I'm guessing in the eighties, that the folks in the "cheap seats" behind the orchestra had the best seats in the house. No they couldn't hear the "proper" balance of sound intended for the folks in the auditorium, but they got to see the maestro in all his glory, not just his backside.

No conductor, it has been said, had a firmer grasp or understanding of the music he directed than Kleiber. Many consider his recordings of the Brahms and Beethoven symphonies (especially the odd numbered ones in the case of the latter), and selected operas of Wagner to be the quintessential performances of those works. His tempi and dynamic range to some may be a bit excessive, but to my ears anyway, at least in the pieces I'm familiar with, his pulling out all the stops brings out the power, passion and the emotion of the music without being just for show, as it might have in lesser hands.

It's one thing to close your eyes and listen to the music, it is another to watch the maestro as he conducts. Kleiber had to be one of the most idiosyncratic conductors of his time. In contrast to the rigid sytle of his father, Erich Kleiber, a notable mid-century conductor, Carlos used his impossibly long arms to great expressive effect, sometimes in long, fluid motions, at other times generating tremendous velocity while conducting at his signature breakneck speed. And sometimes he barely moved his arms at all as he does at the beginning of the major theme of the first movement of the Beethoven Seventh, preferring to keep time with his hips, dancing along with the music, inspired by Scottish folk tunes. At times, the younger Kleiber while conducting looks as if carrying on a conversation with his players with his left hand on his hip or even his pocket while the right hand with the baton continues to keep time.

But the most distinctive part of Carlos Kleiber when he conducted was his face.

Many classical musicians, especially in their performances of the early and mid-nineteeth century Romantic repertoire, are given to excessively contorted facial expressions as if to convey the enormous profundity of the task at hand. Not so with Kleiber; his face conveys pure joy, It could be a knowing grin at one of the players as is they were sharing a secret, a bawdy laugh as if he were having a beer with several of his closest friends, or a broad smile of deep satisfaction, almost to the point of ecstasy as if he were, well I think you get the idea. In all my years of watching conductors, I've never seen a more honestly expressive face. Clearly the performance of music for Kleiber was not purely an academic endeavor, although it was that to be sure, but an exercise examining every emotion that life has to offer from the depths of the deepest sorrow to the soaring peaks of triumphal exultation. He wholeheartedly embraces the music he directs and if we are paying the slightest bit of attention, we embrace it along with him.

Here is a rare video of a Kleiber rehearsal:

It is said that few conductors set such high standards for their work and rehearsed their orchestras more thoroughly. But if Klieber was indeed a taskmaster as his reputation suggests, he did so with kindness and humor rather than what was customary for the era, authoritative detachment. As you'll see, pure joy comes through in the rehearsal as well as in the performance.

Yet few conductors worked as sporadically as Kleiber. Despite being one of the most sought after conductors of his time, Kleiber over the course of his career averaged only about two or three symphonic performances and ten operas per annum, a pittance compared to his peers . Turning down prestigious directorships, and gigs with the most celebrated orchestras and opera companies in the world, Kleiber liked to joke that he only conducted when his freezer became empty. He never accepted students or gave interviews.

He was an enigma to say the least.

There were at least two film documentaries made of his life. One was called "I Am Lost to the World" (the title of which alludes to a song by Mahler), and the other, "Traces to Nowhere" the beginning of which can be seen here:

Both films were made after the conductor's death in 2004 at 74, an age when many conductors are still in the prime of their careers.

We'll never know why Klieber who profoundly loved what he did, was so reticent to perform. Some speculate that his perfectionism got the better of him and that he could never achieve the music on stage that he heard in his head. Others claim that he was plagued with debilitating self-doubt while others said he just became bored with the whole thing. I find the last one hard to believe at least by watching his performances even late in life. His is not the expression of a man filled with that "ol' ennui" as Cole Porter once put it.

In a 2011 BBC Music Magazine poll of contemporary conductors asking them to list their greatest influences. Carlos Kleiber came in first with Leonard Bernstein coming in a distant second. There seems to be nearly unanimous agreement as to where Kleiber stands in the pantheon of great conductors of all time.

But he does have his detractors. In this article, published shortly after the conductor's death, the author, Norman Lebrecht waxes poetically about Kleiber's work at first, in marked contrast to the provocative title of the piece, Carlos Kleiber: Not a Great Conductor(!), (punctuation mark, mine), but in the end takes pains to burst the Kleiber myth, not altogether convincing in my opinion. 

The comments on the first YouTube video I posted are particularly enlightening. Reacting to the slew of hagiographic tributes, one comment on the video of the Amsterdam performance of the Beethoven symphonies, a woman named Svetlana writes:
Beautiful, charming, but moribund Europe. Yes, it is a decadence. Do you want God to give Carlos back to you, sirs? No, Carlos Kleber (sic) will never come back from Heaven. He was too tired here....
Perhaps that's true. We should just be thankful that God gave us Carlos Kleiber, albeit in small doses. And that we have YouTube to remember him.


One more video I just discovered of a Kleiber rehearsal including a rousing performance of a very familiar song. Enjoy:

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