DVD Review: The magic of late conductor Carlos Kleiber eludes two different made-for-TV documentaries
This blog is back -- temporarily and not in a new format. Hopefully, that's better than a blank window.
One of the recurring points of lively debate is what makes a conductor great. As Lorin Maazel said to me a couple of months ago, it's hard to put one's finger on specific characteristics, "but you know one when you see one."
Last month, German conductor Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) was voted the top conductor of all time in a public poll published in BBC Magazine. He conducted a much less than most of the great conductors and his repertoire was especially narrow, rarely venturing out of the 19th century core of European repertoire.
Whatever you and I might think of polls, this must mean he was pretty special.
Coincidentally, two TV documentaries made about Kleiber since his death have recently been issued on DVD: Carlos Kleiber: Traces to Nowhere by Eric Schultz (ArtHaus Musik), which is the strongest of the two; and Carlos Kleiber: I Am Lost to the World, by Georg Wübbolt (C Major).
After watching both, I could only think of one thing: History only matters -- in the real sense of being deeply, viscerally important -- to those who have lived it. It's why each new generation needs its own heroes and villains and why we can't jsut write or say that so-and-so was great, we have to keep proving it over and over.
That's a roundabout way of saying that neither bio-doc really got to the heart of what made Kleiber so special -- more special that Leonard Bernstein or Riccardo Muti or Herbert von Karajan, or the hundred other greats listed in the BBC's poll.
Kleiber is said to have refused to give in-depth interviews, so both documentaries rely on friends and collaborators and colleagues. The most personal is Schultz's film, which includes Kleiber's older sister, Veronica.
Both documentaries use the same film clips of Kleiber in rehearsal and in performance, showing off a highly expressive, engaged conducting style of the type we see with someone like Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Both make the point that this is at the heart of what made orchestras respond to his instructions.
As has been the case so many times throughout history, the person behind the artist is a lot less impressive: Kleiber would frequently walk out of rehearsals and cancel performances. He wanted to be well-paid for what he did. Despite clear devotion to his wife, he was a compulsive womanizer. It appears he might have been borderline manic-depressive.
We don't need to know more about Kleiber's drinking habits. But we do need to see and hear more of his work. What both films lack, for me, is a complete performance of any one work, because that is, ultimately, what bound both listeners and musicians to him.
I love Kleiber's recording of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1981 -- and there is a fine, if slightly less endearing one, available on video from a 1996 concert given by the Bavarian State Orchestra. This would have made an excellent companion to either documentary.
There is an excellent website that has nicely gathered up everything we need to know and hear about Kleiber here.
Here's a rare opportunity to see a bit of Kleiber at work in opera, while also being able to see what is happening on stage, in a Vienna State Opera production Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. it really is special.
Singing are Felicity Lott, Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter in the Act III Trio:
If you'd like to watch the final duet (without a Kleiber inset), click here.