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The Guardian

Carlos Kleiber: the myth revealed

Tom Service, The Guardian

Carlos Kleiber, for many the greatest conductor of all time, is an enigma. Charles Barber’s new book gives us the troubled, funny perfectionist behind the ecstatic music-making.

There are musical myths – and then there’s Carlos Kleiber. The conductor – voted last year by 100 members of his profession as the greatest of all time, ever, in BBC Music Magazine – was, even before his death in 2004, the embodiment of the enigmatic reclusive genius – the maestro who, as Herbert von Karajan put it, would only conduct when his freezer was empty. A thumbnail of the Kleiber myths goes something like this: he was the “perfect conducting machine”, in Gunther Schuller’s words, who hardly ever conducted; he was a musical genius who knew the entire orchestral and operatic repertoire but only had a tiny selection of pieces he ever played in public; he was one of the funniest, most communicative musicians who ever lived, but never gave an interview; he was tormented by the ghost of his father, the great conductor Erich Kleiber; and he once gave a concert as long as his fee was a new Audi A8 with all the trimmings.

There are grains of truth in all of those (the Audi one is definitely true), but there’s much, much more to Kleiber than the myth-making. At least there is now, thanks to Charles Barber’s astonishing new book, Corresponding with Carlos: A Biography of Carlos Kleiber. Charles had a unique relationship with Kleiber. As a conducting student at Stanford University, with dazzling boldness and naivety, he wrote to Kleiber out of the blue and said he wanted to study with him. The key was Barber’s use of humour and irony to attempt to elicit a response from Kleiber – it worked. Barber never formally became a student of Kleiber’s (nobody ever did), but from 1989 until the maestro’s death, he corresponded with the supposedly unknowable Carlos, and as well as vivid account of Kleiber’s life, Barber’s book publishes pretty well the complete letters he received.

And they’re a revelation. Kleiber proves as virtuosically funny and self-deprecating as he was incandescent on the podium. “The bottom line always seems to be: no one on earth can tell you anything accurate or intelligent about conductors, least of all musicians, critics, and … CONDUCTORS, including yours sincerely. Why? Because all and sundry don’t have the faintest, including, again, me.” The bulk of the exchange centres on the films of the great maestros of yesteryear that Barber was collating for his Conductors on Film collection, which he sent – 51 video tapes in all – to Kleiber.

Carlos’s responses are fascinating, his letters executing pirouettes of musical and literary meaning in nearly every sentence, and each disproving his own maxim that he can’t say anything meaningful about his life’s work. On how listening to Duke Ellington gave him the clue about how to conduct Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture: “The Duke and I whipped a downbeat sans upbeat out of nowhere for the start and similar ‘starts’, making it sound like running into a wall at 60mph with a Rolls-Royce, OK?”

On conducting from memory: “‘Doing’ a piece ‘from memory’ is something your Aunt Sally would have no trouble with. Knowing exactly what is (supposed to be) going on is something, I believe, only [Dimitri] Mitropoulos could honestly claim to. With the right band in a good, condescending mood, there’d be no audible difference between Sally and Dimitri, if Sally had digested the overall ductus.”

There’s also real insight into his way of thinking about music’s relationship with the world. He loved Emily Dickinson, and often quotes her poetry in the letters, saying he was the reincarnation of her dog, Carlo, and (quixotically, but passionately) hated Abraham Lincoln – something Barber tries and fails to change his mind on.

Above all, Kleiber worked. Hard. The clue to the supposedly mystical power of Kleiber’s conducting proves not so elusive after all: as Barber’s book shows, he worked more fastidiously and more intensely when he did conduct than any other musician, studying the manuscript, where possible, of every piece he played, and listening to every performance he could gets his hands on.

Barber’s book does more than any other I know to simultaneously reveal the truth behind the Kleiber myths and to illuminate the deeper mystery of how his recordings and films continue to have such a talismanic power. This is a brilliant summary of Kleiber’s way of making music, I think: “When he heard a piece in his mind, he saw each phrase in all its iterations moving nearer to the originating code of conception – perhaps just a single note. His rehearsals operated the same way, always moving toward an infinite point of truth just over there, just past the visible horizon. And he worked in the opposite direction, simultaneously … When he beat the first bar of a great work, in his mind he was already in the last.”

Still not a Kleiber convert? Then do as Charles says, and start by watching Kleiber conduct a Strauss waltz from one of the two New Year’s Day concerts he conducted with the Vienna Philharmonic, Die Libelle, which is a miniature masterclass in, well, virtually all you need to know about great conducting; about the poetic, alchemical connection between gesture and sound. And then watch his Beethoven symphonies, the Fourth and the Seventh, with the Concertgebouw – and you’ll never look back.

For the serious Kleiberophile, YouTube has some truly amazing things: volodya2 has uploaded rare rehearsal footage of him conducting Strauss’s Rosenkavalier in Vienna in 1994, and Wagner’s Tristan in Stuttgart in 1970; and the conductor who never gave an interview gives an interview here! The only one he ever did do, admittedly, but there it is, in German, in all its five minutes of glory. Even better, here is the complete film of the terrifyingly powerful performance of Verdi’s Otello with Domingo at La Scala in 1976; and for good measure here’s my personal favourite at the moment: his frighteningly moving Brahms’s Second Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Barber talks about Kleiber as a perfectionist and an ecstatic. If the perfectionism was his curse – the impossibly high standards that he felt he never truly reached – it’s the ecstasy that we’re left with. As Barber says: “I glory in the fact that he was able to make his miracles at all. Lucky him. Lucky, lucky us.”

Kleiber on YouTube

Click here for a sampling of Carlos Kleiber on YouTube.

AMAZON READERS’ REVIEWS

This has been a long time in the oven, but the pie is truly worth waiting for – and delicious! For Kleiber aficianados this book is pure GOLD.

This is no ordinary biography. Because of Kleiber’s reclusiveness and unwillingness to give interviews to the press or potential biographers, the details of his early life are somewhat sketchy, the whole decade of his twenties and the dawn of his early career and the exact process by which he acquired the skills to go along with his great talent remain elusive. Barber offers the first English language attempt at a formal discussion…

What is special about the book are the insights into Kleiber’s psyche we can derive from the extensive correspondence that he and Barber kept up over many years. Barber as a student conductor had access to videos and recordings at Stanford University which he would shoot off to CK and these would provoke discussion of their contents, frequently to both insightful and very funny effect. These letters, faxes and postcards to Barber (as well as others to certain musicians and impresarios) portray Kleiber’s complex personality in a way that enables the reader to understand the conductor as much more than the received wisdom of ‘weird, enigmatic, cancel-prone, skittish and indecipherable.’ Finally this is a chance to understand more about the man – which is what Biography is about.

There are numerous hysterically funny descriptions of fellow conductors and their perceived foibles, there is the well-known debunking of Celibidache, with a good deal more detail than I have seen before. The overarching themes in Kleiber’s correspondence are his perpetual self-doubt, relentless self-criticism and search for perfection in performance. At the same time we learn much of what it means to be an artist, a performer and a musician in the jet set world. Kleiber is the antithesis to Gergiev who conducts a lot of things in a lot of places on a lot of occasions. Kleiber conducted hardly at all, and this book seeks with success to explain why.

Well done Mr Barber. You have done for Kleiber and his reputation what Oliver Daniel did for Stokowski in “Stokowski – A Counterpoint of View.” You have shone a light and illuminated the life of the greatest conductor of the twentieth century, and you have done it well. Recommended unreservedly. 300+ pages of gold. We Alberichs would give everything for this. So $75 is not so bad.

— Gerontius

 

It’s been a long wait, but finally we Kleiber addicts have been given a biography that amply rewards our patience.

Kleiber was simply the best conductor of the twentieth century, and that’s a provable fact — sort of… ‘Corresponding with Carlos’ is not quite a hagiography, though Dr. Barber definitely worships at the shrine. But I must insist: it’s a very fine shrine, as good as you can get. But unlike the rest of us, Barber had a correspondence with Kleiber lasting well over a decade. These letters form the basis for an unusual biography, but Barber doesn’t stop there. Knowing Kleiber gave him access to others who also knew Kleiber, and Barber has thoroughly mined every vein of ore available to him. We are treated to as complete a biography as we’re ever likely to see.

But wait! There’s more! The letters also contain fascinating discussions about music in general and certain works in particular; not ponderous appreciations of whole works, but the problems with them. It is unusual to hear a conductor wonder why nobody quite understands the importance of bar 147, or how to seat the cellos on stage, or advice on tempo at a certain moment. To hear (read) the things that concern a working conductor is to get a great look past the baton and beneath the tuxedo.

He demanded perfection (that elusive grail) first of himself, then of performers, who worshiped him for it. His letters have insight, of course, but also some fine wit. And also quite a few very bad jokes. It’s refreshing to know that his obsession with perfection did indeed have a very human boundary. Charles Barber includes a generous portion of these warts.

For many, Kleiber is the best conductor you’ve never heard of. Find him on You Tube conducting bonbons by Johan Strauss Jr. Play them first for the fun. Then play them again for the sound. Third time: watch Kleiber. Then you’ll want to buy this book. Good for you.

— Wayne Richards

 

The author, himself a conductor, is obviously a vigorous fan, so a neutral biography seems to be out of the question from the start. But who can blame him? … this book is fun, a lot of fun, many well known and less known anecdotes of the fascinating man and his world. His character simply radiates from the pages. There are many humorous treats which will be devoured by Kleiber’s fans.

I definitely propose watching, reading and listening to the sources mentioned in the book, and the read is an even bigger pleasure… These are a treasure, that’s for certain. They convey vividly Kleiber’s complexity as a person, his playful side, formidable intellect as well as his hyperactive humor and self-doubt… A fascinating perfectionist of a man indeed, and true to himself and the music he so loved. Another important stone in the mosaic of Carlitos’ already stupendous pedigree.

— A. Selan

WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Charles Barber, conductor and artistic director at City Opera Vancouver, became Kleiber’s pen-friend in the late 1980s. Kleiber, often lonely, was prone to form unlikely friendships—one was with a female bassoonist in a Luxembourg orchestra whom he spotted on television. Mr. Barber, by great persistence, achieved an epistolary intimacy with the great conductor over the last 15 years of his life…

“Once the book turns from biographical sketch to lively correspondence, we get the thrill of reading—hearing—the voice of Carlos Kleiber, and all is light… English was Kleiber’s native tongue, and he was never one for idle chat… He apologizes in the letters to Mr. Barber for an “obnoxious sense of humour” and criticizes one of his own videos in which the Concertgebouw players ‘were so stolid and uninterested and . . . my hair was flying every which way (I had forgotten the hairspray, the most important thing for a conductor right after knowing how to tie your own bow-tie, having shirts the right size and wearing braces that don’t shrink).’

“He was enthralled by the ungainly Klaus Tennstedt on television, ” ’cause he looked helpless and unpretentious and the orchestra . . . played for their lives!” He could be engagingly rude, deciding that, “Boulez’s poker face implies that the silly noise [he was conducting Varèse] neither surprises nor bothers him. Determined professionalism. It’s a job, you see.” He tells Mr. Barber that he is “never very rattled by Simon” (Rattle) and refers airily to Chicago’s “Sir Salty” (Sir Georg Solti).

“His observations range from the cheerful to the acidulous but are never malicious. When discussing music, Kleiber sticks to dry technicalities. His intellect was considerable, but if there was an inner life to Carlos Kleiber, he does not entrust it to paper. His favorite poet was Emily Dickinson. He was that inscrutable.”

SYMPHONY NOW

“Charles Barber’s Corresponding with Carlos: A Biography of Carlos Kleiber represents an admiring younger conductor’s efforts, begun during his graduate-student days, to draw out a brilliant but eccentric and reclusive maestro through multiple layers of correspondence.

“In his introduction to Corresponding with Carlos, Barber writes that the book originated with his desire to contact, and eventually to study with, the conductor he had just discovered on public television leading a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony…

“Attempting to reach the conductor through his agency, Columbia Artists Management Inc., Barber was informed that it was doubtful Kleiber would take on a student, but that CAMI would forward a letter to him at his home outside Munich. So the would-be student “charted a path to demonstrate how I could be of service to him, and did so with self-deprecating jokes … and a straightforward pitch.” Barber’s initial letter, dated January 25, 1989, drew the following hand-written response:

“Dear Mr. Barber!
 Tho’ honestly + immensely impressed by your qualifications and accomplishments (wish I could compete!) I am sorry to say: I hardly conduct at all; so that would mean you would be totally hors d’oeuvre (out of work) and horrified at my lack of interest, energy, initiative, and so forth … I’m a real mess, actually. Don’t tell anyone, please.
 Yours Sincerely
, Carlos Kleiber

“This unconventionally structured book consists of two biographical sections (“Family” and “Career”) supplemented with photos and other illustrations; a 92-page compilation of letters from Kleiber interspersed with commentary from the author; an epilogue, bibliography, and index; and four appendices documenting Kleiber’s repertoire and career. His personality and attributes as a conductor emerge not only in his letters to Barber, and in the author’s own opinions, but through the voices of colleagues.

“Conductor Bernard Haitink, for example, found Kleiber ‘an extraordinary man, above all the others. One of his secrets, I think, is that he knows the pieces he works on better than anyone else … Don’t be fooled by the small repertoire. His knowledge of music is immense.’  And the eminent pianist Maurizio Pollini recalls that Kleiber ‘had the capacity to understand instantaneously a work or a score. He immediately had an expressive or interpretive idea in his head, and all this resolved itself immediately, instantly, into a gesture appropriate for orchestra directing.’ ”

VALÈRY RYVKIN

“Having heard most of the world’s best conductors in the last 35 years, I can safely say that none brought so much passion, energy and exquisite musicality and beauty to their work as did Carlos Kleiber. La Bohème and Der Rosenkavalier under his baton at the Met will remain among my most treasured memories. In this fascinating work Charles Barber offers a rare glimpse into the enigma that was Carlos Kleiber.”

EVGENY KISSIN

“An ‘artist par excellence’, and ‘creativity par exellence’ — those are the definitions that come to mind when one thinks of Carlos Kleiber. Each time he conducted, it seemed that the music was being created anew that very moment in all its greatness, beauty and freshness. How wonderful that now we have a book about this genius. Bravo and many heartfelt thanks to Dr. Charles Barber for his work!”

 

BBC3 Who Was Carlos Kleiber?

Download the full documentary at this page.

With Plácido Domingo, Sir Peter Jonas, Christine Lemke-Matwey, and Charles Barber, interviewed by Ivan Hewitt.