When Carlos Kleiber died in 2004, the world didn’t find it out until he had been gone for six days.  The elusive maestro/uncanny conductor had escaped the exploitative notice of the press for one last time.  There were the predictable reactions to the passing of the mystery man, but there was a difficulty in comparisons, because Carlos Kleiber just wasn’t comparable with anyone else, not even within the exclusive realm of the elite conductors of the operatic and symphonic worlds.  No one else had such a small repertoire of actually performed orchestral works and operas.  The knowledge base that he had was another story, but as he aged, Carlos Kleiber whittled down his list to an unimaginably curtailed few works.  But this lack of amplitude was exceeded only by the rarity of any appearances at all.

In his lifetime (he was born in 1930), Kleiber gave 89 concert performances of symphonic repertoire altogether, and repeated some few and fewer operas, totaling 620 presentations.  There were 37 early appearances as conductor of ballets, and he approved for release 12 recordings.  By the time he achieved a certain level of recognition, he was appearing less often, with literally less to offer.  But hardly anyone missed the point that what little there was, was also indispensable.  Indeed, it was the best, and the less of it there was, the higher the price and the more likelihood of one kind of cancellation or another.  It doesn’t make much sense by ordinary standards, but it did to him.

To imagine why Kleiber was so difficult about preparations, rehearsals, and recordings, we would have to know what he considered to be necessary.  For an opera, he wanted up-front guarantees that the most important singers would be there for the entirety of his engagement, because to him, the performances had to be calibrated for the qualities of each voice.  This one demand alone was almost impossible to guarantee in this jet-propelled age.  And this one demand was of course in conflict with all the other demands concerning intense study of the score, adjustments of the individual parts, and plenty of time for rehearsals.  In order to do what he wanted to do, Kleiber had to get a lot of accomplished people to see it his way.  He wasn’t going to get there as a tyrant, but he had to have the time and the freedom to persuade and even to enlighten a jaded orchestra.  If they felt the magic of possibilities rather than the drone of routine, then the sky was the limit; if not, not.  And if a recording was involved, Kleiber would naturally be in conflict with the capitalist agenda to get that investment out there where it could be sold.  This was an agenda that ignored quality in favor of advertising, glossies, marketing, and so on.  And Kleiber couldn’t ever be paranoid enough to distrust the financial powers sufficiently.  An important recording opportunity was a challenging pairing with Sviatoslav Richter, of all people, and the vehicle was the piano concerto of Dvorák.  The result was not good—Kleiber and Richter were not on the same wavelength yet—but that did not stop the delivery to the market of an embarrassment.

But this was only one aspect of Kleiber’s nature that put him in conflict with the Powers and the Press.  Kleiber hardly ever gave an interview, because to him it meant that he was losing control of his own image.  But on another occasion, a record company went so far against his musical authority that he refused to record again.  Deutsche Grammophon had put a lot into their new Tristan und Isolde, but when Kleiber drew a line, the record company in effect stole his work by publishing what he had repudiated—or so it seemed to him.  If he wasn’t in charge of the Kleiber brand, who was?  Those ways parted and were never brought together again.  And we can understand a part of the problem at least, as various stories from Hollywood, from other industries, and even from the academic world do seem to reflect a familiar pattern.

If Carlos Kleiber had been Norma Desmond, he would have announced, “Mr. DeMille, I’m not ready for my close-up!”  And it’s a good thing that Norma Desmond had already arrived on the cultural scene, because Carlos Kleiber really did have a bit in common with her—some things that are a challenge to live with.  I can think of several salient qualities, maybe three.  Like her, he was of star quality—he was a charismatic individual who attracted the eyes as well as the ears of many.  Like her, he had a special car—it was no Isotta Fraschini but rather a customized Audi A8 that was given to him by the manufacturer in addition to cash for services rendered.  And like her, he needed the audience of the fans that he avoided—for both, they bought the tickets.  But Carlos not only thought he owned his own idiosyncratically managed brand, but was himself his most severe critic.

So as we wave bye-bye to the Norma trope, we can perhaps add that both Norma and Carlos had an insecurity or self-doubt that was a struggle to live with.  With Carlos, that had literally been bred in the bone.  Erich Kleiber, his father (1890-1956), was a famous conductor, a peer of Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, and some few others.  Erich Kleiber was a political maverick of integrity, one who left Germany because Hitler was insufferable, on principle.  He spent years on the road, most of them in Argentina, and upon his return to Europe after the war, wound up for some while in East Germany—but the communists weren’t much better than the Nazis.

There are perhaps two things to add to this description, in order to understand Erich Kleiber.  First, he was such a remarkable conductor that his recorded work is still available, and much of it is treasured.  Several of his recordings are still thought to be the best—his Beethoven Fifth Symphony is but one.  His versions of Der Rosenkavalier and Le Nozze di Figaro are still commanding heights of operatic achievement.  Erich Kleiber expressed regret that his son had musical talent, and tried to keep him out of the musical world, in part out of kind consideration—he knew how frustrating that world could be.  But he also declared, “Eine Kleiber ist genug,” saying literally that “One Kleiber is enough,” and perhaps implying, “One great conductor is enough in one family.”  He could hardly have said anything that would have been more provocative of the response that he wished to avoid.  Right—but the Freudian field day gets even better when examined more closely.

There would be a question, then, about the son’s duplication of much of the original Kleiber’s temperament, perfectionism, appetite for extended rehearsals, and so on.  And then there would be the reinvention of the emphasized repertory, which is both an obvious and an ambiguous point.  The son’s obsessive address to such works as Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, Brahms’s Fourth, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, and Berg’s Wozzeck were all repeats of what the father had emphasized; but they were also major items of the standard repertory.  Erich had of course led the world premiere of Wozzeck after 137 rehearsals in 1925, but had also been nominated as the nonfather of his own son, with Alban Berg as the biological progenitor of Carlos Kleiber.  To top it off, the mother of that child was also nominated by gossips as the nonbiological mother of that same Carlos!  It’s somewhere along here that one wishes to be excused from further speculations on these matters.  Dr. Freud, call your office at once, please.

And then there would be the matter of the other Strauss of the concert waltzes and Die Fledermaus.  Carlos was not at all above this indulgent music—far from it.  His New Year’s concerts of 1989 and 1992 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra were big successes as televised internationally, and still are beheld on YouTube, as are many of the filmed images of both of the Kleibers.

The Viennese presentations are pleasing, and not only to the ear.  And this brings up another aspect of Carlos Kleiber and our experience of him, which must be taken into some kind of account: his distinctive appearance, his long arms, and his aspect as a remarkable, even unique figure on the podium.  This is the sort of thing that Kleiber the purist would shrink from—but it is also the kind of thing that he put to good use.  He was aware of his own image, and he took advantage of it in more than one way.  We would do well to remember that most conductors are not much fun to watch; many of them actually cultivate a forbidding cast.

I remember the first recording by Carlos Kleiber that I ever got my hands on—the LP of the Brahms Fourth—and one of the reasons I grabbed it was the creatively distorted photo of the conductor’s head on the cover.  He looked like Boris Karloff trying to imitate some sensitive soul.  I was hooked by the tones that were recorded in those grooves, but not so taken that I failed to notice one questionable aspect.  The slow movement was too fast: The conductor had cheated the music in order to maintain the excitement.  Was it a flaw in a great performance and an understandable mistake of passion, or was it a calculated imposition?

That’s what I wondered about then.  Today, I don’t wonder.  Within the limits of their repertoires, the Kleibers are like the Chopin Études: Each one is better than the other.  I would not want to live without either.  Nor would I want to be without my copy of the best treatment of Carlos Kleiber in English, Corresponding With Carlos: A Biography of Carlos Kleiber, by Charles Barber (2011).  This volume is also the only one that cites a review of David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln that Thomas Fleming wrote for The Spectator of January 20, 1996 (and which identifies him as the editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture)–a review noted favorably by Carlos Kleiber himself then (p. 254), and by me now.