AIthough Carlos Kleiber performed notoriously infrequently, at least in recent decades, and never gave an interview, his magnetic personality, extraordinary virtuosity and vibrant performances fascinated and captivated music lovers around the world. Even those who felt there was excessive nervous energy and caprice in his conducting marvelled at the remarkable technical results. No wonder the death of such a unique musician has saddened so many.
Born in 1930 in Germany (as an Austrian citizen), Carlos Kleiber was the son of Erich Kleiber, one of the most influential conductors of the earlier part of the century. He initially discouraged his son from following in his footsteps, but in due course Carlos disregarded his advice and embarked on a career which evolved gradually in the traditional, now almost defunct way – learning the craft as a repetiteur and then conductor in provincial opera houses. He made his debut in Potsdam in 1954 and then joined the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf three years later. In 1964 he went to the Zurich Opera, and was still relatively little-known when, in 1966, he became First Kapellmeister at the Wurttemberg State Theatre in Stuttgart. It was here, during the next three years, that he began to attract international attention. But before long he decided he only wanted to conduct a small select repertoire as an occasional guest – where and when he wanted. There was a 10-year arrangement with the Bavarian State Opera from 1968 but even there his appearances were infrequent. Demand for the elusive Kleiber grew substantially, and by the time he made his debuts at Vienna in 1973, and Bayreuth, Covent Garden and La Scala in 1974, he was one of the most sought-after of all conductors – ever. He was the first choice of the Berlin Philharmonic to succeed Herbert von Karajan but he was not interested. By now he was only rarely to be seen in the opera house and concert hall, his performances almost invariably selling out well in advance.
Karajan once joked that Kleiber only conducted when his freezer was empty – though on one rare return to the podium several years ago he was lured back by the fee of an Audi car. As for recordings, there is just a small handful of discs and videos and a few pirate issues, virtually all of them collectors’ treasured items. One especially prized recording is a recently issued DVD of a rehearsal in 1970, which vividly shows what an inspirational perfectionist he was, a character trait recalled by Ileana Cotrubas, who sang Violetta and Mimi with him. ‘He ate and breathed music, and, unlike so many celebrity conductors, he came to every single rehearsal. He insisted on having so many rehearsals because he needed the time to get to know the artists and become familiar with the emotional impact of a performer in his or her role. It was important both for him and us to have this mutual knowledge. When the performance came I had the feeling that we could fly – everything felt so natural.’
Margaret Price, Kleiber’s Desdemona at Covent Garden in 1980, and who also performed and recorded Isolde with him, found him ‘so meticulous: he sent me a score that was absolutely riddled with markings that he wanted me to think about and do for him. When I then went to Munich to rehearse with him, he was astonished that I had actually taken in everything that he had specifically asked for, and he was very pleased and happy. But at the same time he wanted me to give my own individual interpretation. He was not like some conductors who rehearse over and over again and expect you to perform exactly the way they have rehearsed. Although he was so specific, he also gave you a lot of freedom and wanted that in performance.’
Orchestral musicians who played for Kleiber were riveted by his approach. Former Covent Garden principal trombone Harold Nash recalls: ‘His intellect was astonishing, and then with that to have the musical taste, the extraordinary technique and the crazy personality that changed so dramatically from bar to bar – you could see the face change when the chord changed!’ I experienced the instantaneous effect of that the first time I played for Kleiber, in La bohème at Covent Garden. In the opening minute of the first rehearsal the orchestra sounded so exceptionally flexible, vibrant and yet precise, before he had said a word. Then, when he went into detail, although he was so demanding he was captivating: ‘He painted such vivid pictures, both in words and with his baton, and everything fell so perfectly into place,’ comments former ROH percussionist Ronald McCrea. He also recalls that: ‘On occasion he could be temperamental – I remember he was going to walk out once because he felt the chorus wasn’t taking what he was saying seriously. But on the whole he was so charming and so amazingly entertaining.’
Kleiber was extremely vulnerable and often self-doubting. When disparaged in three newspapers after a London Symphony Orchestra concert that he, the orchestra and the audience were thrilled with, he was so wounded he vowed never to conduct in London again. This same delicate fragility led to his total retreat from media attention. ‘He was not a recluse, but he was a very private person,’ adds Margaret Price, who saw him every week in the local baker shop in Munich when she lived there, near his home. ‘He had his own way of working, he would study ad nauseam and he did not get involved in parties or receptions and the like. He did not want that at all.’
‘He was an introvert,’ adds Ileana Cotrubas. ‘If you wanted just to touch a tiny part of his private life he was like a snail who immediately goes into his shell and will only come out later’. He was also disarmingly humble. On one occasion in between rehearsals, he asked me if I had ever played for Leopold Stokowski. When I replied that I indeed had on a number of occasions, he was excited and asked: ‘Please tell me – how did he get that amazing sound from the orchestra, what did he do?’ He would never know how many scores of music lovers and musicians asked me the very same question about Carlos Kleiber.