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Celebrating Carlos Kleiber

I came late to the Kleiber party – I was introduced to him only recently by Burton Kaplan while I was on his Magic Mountain music course. The whole class watched a documentary on Kleiber and then his performances of Strauss, Beethoven and Brahms. I was mesmerised.

Kaplan was trying to demonstrate to us the musical logic of Kleiber's conducting, but also the narrative quality of his rehearsal technique, to show us how this could inform our own musical conceptions. As you can see in the footage below, Kleiber uses imagery, metaphors and stories much of the time to explain what he means, whether describing a pretty girl walking by, or the difference between curtains and winter clothes, or the effects of drinking coffee. Judging by the expressions on the faces of the largely elderly male orchestral players (what a time capsule the footage is) I'm not sure this always goes down well. However, the results are visceral performances, whether of Beethoven, Strauss, Mozart or Brahms. Everything just sounds as if it's supposed to be exactly like it is – nothing could be played any other way. It's just a shame that Kleiber left behind relatively few recordings and no interviews to help us understand him better.

For me a great part of the enjoyment of watching these films is the sheer poetry and charisma of Kleiber's conducting style – it's hard to take your eyes off him. There's hardly any bar beating – it's all expressing the music with grace, power and subtlety. As a Charlie Chaplin obsessive, I'd even draw parallels between them. Both control the expressivity of every slightest gesture in every body part and are completely aware of how that affects the person watching it emotionally. It's hardly surprising that such subtleties of expression and phrasings transmit themselves to both players and audiences, whatever the impassive-looking players are thinking.

Here is a selection of videos I could find on YouTube, starting with the fascinating rehearsal footage. I would love to know what you think about Kleiber, especially if you ever saw him live, and even better, if you played under him!

Beethoven Symphonies nos.4 and 7:

Beethoven Coriolan, Mozart Symphony no.33 and Brahms Symphony no.4:

New Year's Day Concert in Vienna, 1992:

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