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August 14, 2012 6:10 pm
The postmark is Grünwald, a suburb of Munich, and the address on the envelope is written in the same fluent hand as the letter inside. Dated March 21 2001, it begins “Dear Mr Clark, Thank you for sending me the Richter Notebooks review” – a reference to a book about Sviatoslav Richter I had reviewed for the FT. At the bottom of the letter is the signature of Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004), widely acknowledged as the most gifted conductor of the past half-century. Richter was the only instrumental soloist with whom Kleiber made a commercial recording – Dvorák’s Piano Concerto. Every other pianist he accompanied “might have sounded OK for the auditorium”, Kleiber writes, “but from where I stood they sounded lousy. I especially loved the kindness of this bear of a man and his refusal to conform or to explain his musical likes or dislikes.”
Did Kleiber recognise some of his own qualities in the Russian pianist? Kleiber had an explosive presence, an innate understanding of orchestra psychology and a phenomenal gift for shaping music. But in the decade before he withdrew from public life in 1999, he conducted only a handful of performances annually. Plagued by depression and self-doubt, he never gave an interview or expressed an opinion in public. That is why his recorded legacy is so valuable, and why I treasure his letters.
Kleiber was notoriously fussy about his recordings. No sooner would he make one than he forbade its release. By comparison with other prominent 20th-century conductors, his legacy of studio recordings is tiny, but it is supplemented by live performances that reveal his charismatic force.
His 1983 Amsterdam concert with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, preserved on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD, captures his essence – the intensity and almost balletic grace. These performances harness all the power and drama of Beethoven, but the music has wings, enlivened by Kleiber’s ecstatic expressions.
By contrast, the DVD of a 1996 concert with the Bavarian State Orchestra shows a prematurely aged man struggling to recapture his fire. Nor does the film of Mozart’s Linz Symphony and Brahms’s Second with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1991 find him at his best, useful as it is to hear repertoire he did not record in the studio.
Kleiber conducted two New Year’s Day concerts in Vienna. Whereas the 1989 concert resembled a freshly uncorked bottle of champagne, the 1992 repeat was an anti-climax. Both are available on DVD and CD.
Of his studio recordings, all on Deutsche Grammophon, Tristan und Isolde is notable for Kleiber’s instinctive grasp of line, and for the way he coaxed a lyrical heroine out of Margaret Price, who never sang Isolde in the theatre. Der Freischütz, recorded in Dresden, has an uneven cast, but the Munich Traviata he made with Ileana Cotrubas and Placido Domingo still holds its own against all-comers. His finest achievement in the studio was the Beethoven Fifth and Seventh Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic: this CD belongs in the pantheon of great recordings.
Much less renowned, but just as valuable, is a live Beethoven Sixth Symphony taped by a member of the audience at a Munich concert in 1983 and now available on Orfeo. Forget the imperfect sound: Kleiber’s fresh-as-air reading is thrillingly brisk, with an orchestra that plays like the expression of his will. Orfeo’s Kleiber discography also includes Der Rosenkavalier, one of the conductor’s signature works, but you get a better cast on Deutsche Grammophon’s film of the same production, an indispensable document for anyone interested in Strauss’s opera and Kleiber’s art. Much the same can be said for his Fledermaus , also recorded live in Munich.
So much for the musician – but what about the man behind the podium personality? Two DVDs on Arthaus Musik offer valuable insight. Carlos Kleiber – Rehearsal and Performance is a film of a 1970 rehearsal in Stuttgart, in which a younger, good-humoured Kleiber takes apart the overtures to Der Freischütz and Die Fledermaus, articulating his demands with beguiling picture-images and a baton technique unsurpassed for sculptural fluency.
Traces to Nowhere , a film-biography, is even more fascinating. By uncovering Kleiber’s insecurities, it reveals a tragic figure who ultimately could not live up to his legend. And yet, instead of diminishing Kleiber, it underscores his stature.
In his letter to me, Kleiber wrote of Richter that “every note he played was a gem”. The same, and more, could be said of Kleiber’s conducting.
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