Carlos Kleiber was notoriously difficult to lure to the recording studio. Whenever he did record, however, something magical was sure to come out. His Beethoven 5th (and 7th) Symphony are unanimously hailed as the
versions to measure all others against. They continue to stand the test of time, and re-released as SACDs, this Deutsche Grammophone Originals
disc ought to be the cornerstone of every music-lover's library. It will continue to outshine, outsell, outlive all other rivals. Forget 'historically informed', forget discussions about tempo... under Kleiber this work is everything you can imagine it to be, and all along it will always sound 'just right'. Never forced, never willful, there is not a hint of 'interpretation' - just music at its most frightening, at its most beautiful, lyrical... Enjoy!
His Brahms 2nd was a staple of his painfully narrow repertoire. Unfortunately, he did not record it for DG. Instead, we have a splendid Brahms 4th from him. "Swaggering gait" is attested to in the stupendous Scherzo
, and the playing from the Vienna forces (the recording is from 1981 and sounds great, still!) is impeccable. Not the most lyrical of accounts, but one of the most important. It is Carlos Kleiber on record, at mid-price, so we are not asking for a coupling... petty questions reserved for lesser gods of the recording industry. I am still a sucker for my Brahms symphonies with the late Günter Wand (RCA, Brahms Symphonies 1-4), but I would not want to be without this one, either.
Tristan und Isolde
took a special place in his musical life, and it should, in ours, as well. Alas, his DG recording from Dresden with Margaret Price as Isolde, Brigitte Fassbaender as Brangäne, René Kollo as Tristan, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Kurwenal, and Kurt Moll as King Marke is not without fault. The interpretation is lithe and gorgeous, and the balance and the remastered sound are superb, though some describe it as a bit metallic. Margaret Price is not the dramatic soprano usually tackling Isolde, but her voice is beautiful and works well for most of the opera's length. Gramophone's Alan Blythe thought that Brigitte Fassbaender would have made a better coupling with a different Isolde, but I am taken by her Brangäne entirely. Kollo and Dieskau are not the backbone of this recording, while Kurt Moll is his usual flawless, moving, exceptional self as Marke. With Furtwängler, Barenboim, Böhm, the endless Bernstein, perhaps even the new Thielemann (see Dip Your Ears, No. 7
), this is not the natural first choice.
There is, however, a recording of the most sublime Tristan
moment in Kleiber's life, his 1974 Bayreuth performance. Helge Brilioth as Tristan is no Wolfgang Windgassen, and he seems to be concerned about economy at times, but it pays off in Act II, I am told. Catarina Ligendza is strange in a good way: naive, childlike, and at the same time threatening. Donald McIntyre was past his prime, but Yvonne Minton made for one of the finest performances of a Brangäne. For Kurt Moll the usual statement applies. The Melodram recording (less expensive than one might expect because this Tristan fits on three CDs) captures the sound of Bayreuth well enough, and magic happens as Kleiber conducts with fire, unearthing little nuances that others throw away, always in the interest of the piece at large. For the Kleiber-Tristan experience, this is the recording to get... though I would still want to own a studio Tristan
Sticking with opera, Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz
, often considered to be the first true
German opera, with Kleiber—recorded in 1973 with excellent sound—has few rivals (Rafael Kubelik on Decca being the only serious available one) and has garnered much praise. Gramophone's John Warrack feels that some of the tempi are not as he would want them but underscores how interesting and full of insight this recording is. (His colleague Alan Blyth, however, does not care for the whole thing much.) The cast is fairly impeccable with Gundula Janowitz as Agathe, Peter Schreier as Max, Bernd Weikl as Ottokar, Theo Adam as Caspar, etc., and the result is delectable to my ears. For anyone with a hankering for German Romantic opera, this is an ought-to-have.
Opera yet again, this time Verdi's La Traviata
, one of Kleiber's staples. Available in three different versions (apart from the regular issue also as Centenary Collection, and SACD!) it is famous for Ileanas Cotrubas—a light, fragile, and wholly believable Violetta, not a showstopper but a woman, now sick, albeit with amazing vocal control. Quibbles about tempi among critics occur, but this is still a wonderfully well-judged performance that, due to a few cuts, none of which are disconcerting to me, conveniently fits on two CDs. Placido Domingo as Alfredo and Sherill Milnes as Germont don't hurt either... and for anyone wanting a dramatic and moving Traviata
rather than purest vocal fireworks, this would be the set to go to.
(The Bat), the light and fun operetta by Johann Strauss, Jr., was another favorite of Carlos Kleiber's - and it 'hears' on this recording, perhaps the finest Fledermaus on disc. What saddens me, who is used to seeing the operetta in full, with all the dialog, is that the latter is cut. A particular shame since the direction was with the incomparable August Everding. Everyone else, it seems, takes objection to Ivan Rebroff singing the role of Prince Orlofsky in falsetto, a 'trouser-role' for mezzo soprano. Amidst Julia Varady (Rosalinde), Lucia Popp (Adele), Hermann Prey (Eisenstein), René Kollo (Alfred), Bernd Weikl (Doctor Falke), et al., this doesn't quite concern me as much, though—especially since I am not convinced by a real mezzo as Prince Orlofsky either. A minor annoyance can be that changing discs takes place more or less mid-Act II finale. Alas, anyone with a disc changer and no desire to hear funny German (oxymoron?) dialogue has no excuse but to own this version.
Schubert, alas, including the 3rd Symphony he conducted so often. But neither the 3rd nor the 8th, the "Unfinished," convince 100%. "Hard driven" is a term rightly ascribed to the unduly fast tempi that Kleiber employs, especially in the 8th. The musicianship is still extant, and amply so... the Vienna Philharmonic plays superbly, and the sonics are good. The spirit of Schubert, however, might have been AWOL. Perhaps this isn't so bad, if for no other reason than that Kleiber probably has something to say, even if we don't find it fitting our expectations. Still, Solti (also with the VPO) on Decca or Günter Wand on RCA are likely to get more playtime at home.