A Study in Contrasts – Carlos Kleiber

Kleiber opening

kati2_avatarby Kati Harrison


Enigmatic, eccentric, great and passionate are all familiar and perhaps even alluring descriptions of conductor, Carlos Kleiber.  Kleiber was born on July 3rd in 1930 in Berlin.  His father was the celebrated and worshiped Austrian conductor Eric Kleiber who moved his family to Argentina in order to flee Nazi Germany. The elder Kleiber also discouraged his son Carlos from becoming involved in music.

Like a number of gifted souls Carlos Kleiber was a study in contrasts.  An enfant terrible, Kleiber was a temperamental perfectionist and a man who had a childlike fascination with double-decker buses and video games. On the one hand Kleiber was notorious for canceling engagements at the last minute, and on the other steadfast in maintaining continuity and permanence at home with his wife and children. Kleiber could be relentlessly brusque with a performer vowing never to work with him or her again. But he was also a personable and unique communicator with the musicians standing in front of him.  Instead of singling out instrumentalists, he would leave notes, fondly called “Kleibergrams,” on their respective music stands.  They read something like this:  “Clarinets-basses Tristan und Isolde 5-5-78 Prelude 1 Action, 5th to 10 bars with the ending: please, do not enter without me, because I wait for a long time here.  And perhaps the attack should be lighter. Thank you very much, good luck, yours Carlos Kleiber.”

Carlos Kleiber’s love and hate relationship with conducting is another ironic twist.  Herbert von Karajan once said: “Carlos has a genius for conducting but he doesn’t enjoy doing it.  He tells me, ‘I conduct only when I’m hungry.’”  Aside from an emotionally exhausting drive for perfectionism, part of Kleiber’s apprehension might have been the weight of following in the shadow of his father.  Kleiber Sr., who could be a bit prickly himself, once told his son to never attempt to conduct waltzes, “..as you have no sense of rhythm.”  In spite of that vote of confidence, Carlos would later record a concert of waltzes and light music, which is considered to be definitive. Aside from everything else, he was a homebody who did not care for fame or glamour.  He once told Leonard Bernstein:  “I want to grow in a garden.  I want to have the sun.  I want to eat and drink and sleep and make love and that’s it.”

Kleiber Brahms 4

Even to the musically untrained ear, one can still hear Carlos Kleiber’s complete control, understanding and brilliant interpretation of the music.  Along with the powerful control and a passion to remain crystal-clear true to the music, Kleiber’s uniqueness also lay in his commitment to play only what he wanted to play.  Some argue that he did not cover enough of the repertoire. Perhaps it was this self-knowledge and commitment to remain true to what he liked that was his biggest strength as a conductor.  It certainly makes choosing recordings much simpler as you can be certain that each was an act of love and excessively hard work.  There is no doubt that Kleiber and the orchestra are giving it everything they have.  Opera lovers say that Kleiber’s Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss is superlative.  In the orchestral repertoire, go for the recording of the Brahms Symphony No. 4.  No matter how many times you have heard this Brahms warhorse, be prepared for a transcendental experience.  And remember any recording you choose by Carlos Kleiber will be splendid as he left us only the best.  On the subject of conducting, Plácido Domingo once said, “I want to have the liveliness of Levine, the gesture of Abbado, the capacity of Mehta and…everything of Kleiber!”

Kleiber 1








Kati HarrisonAbout 

Kati is WBJC’s Operations Director and weekend host. Her full bio can be read here.