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20.7.04

In Memoriam Carlos Kleiber 


Carlos Kleiber, 1930-2004
On July 13th, in a little Slovenian village named Konjsica, died one of the most exciting, one of the greatest conductors that classical music ever knew. To lump Carlos Kleiber together with others by saying "one of the..." is already doing him injustice - too unique was this son of the conducting great Erich Kleiber. To describe his repertoire as narrow would be euphemistic - he conducted the same works over and over, to the point of obsession. Brahms' 2nd, Beethoven's 5th, Schubert's 3rd, Tristan, Die Fledermaus, La Traviata and Der Rosenkavalier. Not because he had to (from the 70s on he didn't hold fix positions as conductor of an orchestra or opera house) - but because he wanted to.

Herbert von Karajan, who thought Carlos Kleiber to be a genius, said once - not entirely without malice - that it is sad that such an artist doesn't really like music. This was a comment on the notorious difficulties that were involved in getting Kleiber to conduct at all. Allegedly, responding to Karajan asking him why he did not conduct more, Kleiber said that he conducted only when his freezer had become all empty. Kleiber's genius had him recognized as the most exciting conductor of his time, especially after Bernstein was dead. He was offered almost anything (unlimited rehearsals, any amount of money) to conduct - and seldom did.

Kleiber was difficult, gratuitously so, it seemed - and he was almost autistic in his shyness (Wolfgang Sawallisch reports having almost to push timid Carlos unto the podium, wherefrom on, however, everything being just fine) - and he undoubtedly was influenced by his Über-Father, Erich, who did everything to discourage his son from a conducting career. Like many a musical genius (and some who think they are), Carlos Kleiber seemed driven to "non-functionality", as Joachim Kaiser from the Süddeutsche Zeitung puts it. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and, to a lesser degree, Glenn Gould come to mind.

Claudio Abbado thought Kleiber the best Tristan conductor, even before Bayreuth, in 1974, got to see, hear, breathe the magic that Kleiber unfolded on the 'Green Hill'. Tristan & Isolde transfigured Kleiber, Wolfgang Sander from the Frankfurter Allgemeine(n) Zeitung reports of Kleiber being described as suddenly growing during a an Elektra or Tristan performance, his limbs seemingly extending; Kleiber transfigured. And the Wagner Opera he so loved brought him to the brink of collapse on several reported occasions.

If Bernstein knew how to begin a work, Kleiber knew how to end one. Which, with his unsurpassed sense of musical architecture, was one of the reasons why critics were so effusive in finding neologisms of praise for him (or leaving their column blank, declaring a Brahms e-minor symphony so 'complete' that they were at a loss for words). The end of a work, the beginning of memory and the point from which a successful journey can be judged... Now we are with Carlos Kleiber himself at that point. He died and was buried on his mothers' estate in Konjsica, age 74. Blessed those with memories of live performances, but even those who rely on the handful of outstanding recordings available can look back and see that this, for all the incongruencies, was one of the most successful journeys any musician had ever undertaken.



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