Carlos Kleiber, conductor

I had always heard the highest praise for Carlos Kleiber during the years I was in Germany, and I own his wonderful recording of Weber’s Der Freischuetz, but I wanted to know more about him.

Recently I watched Trace to Nowhere, a documentary film in German about the conductor Carlos Kleiber. Then I found Carlos Kleiber – I Am Lost To The World (2010), another documentary about him, mostly in German.

The man was an enigma, a very private person, who gave only one interview in his life.  He was the child of conductor Erich Kleiber, who had begun a distinguished career in Berlin in the early 1930’s and who ran into problems with the Nazi regime over his conducting of modern works.  Erich Kleiber took his family to Argentina in 1935.   Karl, renamed Carlos, was supposedly a very sensitive child. His father said it was a shame he had musical talent and discouraged him from pursuing music as a career path.  He studied chemistry for a year, but then decided he must conduct.  Carlos then spent two years with private theory and piano teachers and went off to work as a Korrepetitor, or rehearsal pianist, in Potsdam outside Berlin.  His father suggested he could learn the most about conducting in the realm of operetta, and so he obtained one of his first posts with the Volksoper Berlin.  Later Carlos declared that operetta was actually the hardest thing to conduct. If you watch the videos of New Year’s concerts in Vienna that he conducted, which call on a lot of that repertoire, it is clear that he  knew and loved the music.

Carlos Kleiber always tried to attain what his father did (and, frankly, often outdid him).  He expressed that he felt himself unworthy of the music he was conducting; he had terrible nerves before walking out on stage.  Apparently he was a perfectionist in his preparation, studying the music thoroughly, looking at the manuscript if it was available, and listening to all available recordings.  He conducted frequently from memory.  As his career progressed, with orchestra positions in Munich, Chicago, Berlin, and Vienna; opera in London, Bayreuth, and the Met, he insisted on longer rehearsal times with his performers, and this often caused problems.  Reportedly he didn’t like to sign contracts and often performed without one.

Ultimately Carlos Kleiber was a musician and conductor who could translate notes on a page to emotions; could shape the music according to his concept; and who developed the physical gestural capacity to impart that visually to performers.  There are only a few films of him rehearsing and conducting, all of them with orchestras.  He exhibited an extraordinary recognition of fine differences in articulation and phrasing and sometimes made interesting verbal comparisons e.g., “these 8th notes have too much nicotine” (my translation).  He rarely beat the typical pattern, but always set it up at the beginnings of sections or after changes in tempo.

The filmmakers of Trace to Nowhere interviewed Carlos’  sister, singers Placido Domingo and Brigitte Fassbaender, a makeup artist with the Bavarian Opera (one must ask why), players from the Stuttgart and Vienna orchestras, his doctor, and a present-day conductor, Manfred Honeck.  All expressed great admiration.  Trace to Nowhere was an inspiring film which demonstrated the conductor’s intensity and musicality, which may have been unequalled in the 20th century.

In the second film, I  am Lost to the World, there are many memories and stories from musicians and other colleagues who worked closely with Kleiber (stage director, Korrepititor, players, etc.) and the impression is a bit more personal and somewhat more critical.  Here’s an example of how Kleiber expressed himself in rehearsal.  On one soft entrance of low brasses, he stopped them after the first attempt and said, “let your neighbor enter first”  The next attempt was quite different in sound.  (I am not sure if some actually did not play, the camera was pointed towards the conductor). Then he said, ”the more courageous ones came in that time, now the rest should sneak in and make the sound grow.” Telling this story years later, one of the musicians said, “he could always find some way  to say  something that had nothing to do with music, to find some way around the issue, and yet you played differently.”

His concept of the music was clear in every detail.  His demonstrations singing a bit of the music with different articulation were very interesting.  He knew exactly what effect he wants.  He doesn’t say “more staccato” or “crisper attack” but just sings three seconds’ worth, imitating them and then doing it the way he wanted to hear it.  Then he said“not so elefantisch.” (literally “not so elephant-like”) And waved the baton.

According to musicians who performed with him, rehearsals could become tedious because of his demanding approach to details.  Kleiber’s perfectionism was compared to that of Herbert von Karajan. (Karajan’s retirement from the Berlin Philharmonic yielded an offer of the position to Kleiber, who rejected it.) Once he got past all those detailed rehearsals, the outcome in the performances amazed both the musicians and often Kleiber himself.  The emotion and sheer joy with which he conducted are always evident in the films of his conducting.  The music was completely internalized and he was free to express freely.

As Kleiber’s career progressed, he cancelled frequently, conducted less and less, and programmed fewer works; he began to limit himself to works his father had conducted.  It seems that with the self-limiting of repertoire, insistence on long rehearsal periods,  and many cancellations, he was not able to meet normal expectations.  Despite this, he remained in great demand until his death at age 74.

Here are some links of rehearsals and performances.  Enjoy!

1970 rehearsal of Fledermaus overture with subtitles in English



Isolde’s Love-Death


Isolde’s Liebestod performance (Bayreuth)


highlights in performances

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