Carlos Kleiber = I am lost to the world, Blu-ray (2014)Producer: Bernhard Fleischer Director: Georg Wubbolt Studio: C Major 715304 [Distr. by Naxos] Video: 1080i HD for 16:9 Audio: German (mostly) PCM Stereo Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese Length: 58 minutes Rating: *****
I found it amazing that in a BBC Music poll awhile back, the respondents said that they considered Carlos Kleiber to be the greatest conductor in history, followed by Leonard Bernstein. This despite the fact that Kleiber only conducted around 96 concerts and 400 opera appearances his entire life, something that Bernstein and Abbado (who was third in the poll) dwarfed in a number of short years. Those two conductors also left Kleiber in the dust in terms of breadth of repertory.
It’s hard to know how much an artist’s reclusiveness and fickleness enters the public persona and influences how the audience and fans perceive him or her. In Kleiber’s case—as in Toscanini’s to a certain extent, though much of his image was record-label promoted—there can be little doubt that his legend was indeed magnified by his wanton actions in declining great positions (the Berlin Philharmonic wanted him after Karajan’s demise), excessively exorbitant and even silly demands (getting an Audi for an appearance for example), or simply declining so many invitations to conduct, ignoring requests for interviews, and restricting his recording activities to an extreme few. All of this helps to bolster his almost hagiographic image among music lovers, and perhaps to a certain extent even influences how we think of his recordings, now treated as sacred relics of a musical saint who knew no peers during his lifetime, and disappeared all too soon.
He might be considered a sort of musical Howard Hughes—there are similarities—in his genius, passion, and single-minded dedication to his art. Or was it? Though the blurb on the notes here by conductor Riccardo Muti says that to Kleiber, conducting was almost a religious experience, I find little of the divine in it. Instead it seems to me that it was a highly personal experience, not done to communicate the composer to the waiting masses, but more of a complete and immersive private act that was done first and foremost to satisfy his own inner desires and quest for musical ecstasy.
But in the end it doesn’t really matter—only Kleiber knows why he did what he did, acted how he acted, and conducted for whatever reasons he had. And though, as I said, his persona does influence how we think on his recordings, now that he has been gone for a while it is easier to examine them in the light of clear and un-deified dispassion to see how they really sound to us. The results—there is no doubt that Kleiber had a unique and penetrative vision in regards to the music he really loved, and his communicative ability, whether intended or not, is definitely there as we always suspected it was. Many of his few recordings do indeed set the standard still, though we have to wonder if he was not burnt out interpretatively by the end of his life, perhaps not having the energy to project such passion on new repertory.
Was he the greatest conductor who ever lived? I sincerely doubt it, though he was certainly one of the most engaging and passionate. But that mantle must be given to others who actually conducted more, were more expansive in their art and repertory, and less self-absorbed in their lives. Kleiber seems a troubled soul, as this excellent documentary shows, one destined to burn quickly and with brilliance that almost feels too all-consuming in a musical world that demands so much conformity. He went his own way, not concerned about publicity, appearances, or in the end, his fans, as he left them so little. But they are fortunate that what he did leave behind fully lives up to the myth that he created about himself, and we are quite lucky to have shared his illuminations about the art of music, constricted though they turned out to be.