Time travel is logically impossible. But if it could be done, one might choose to be present at the birth of Christ, to meet Eleanor of Aquitaine, to talk with Richard Feynman, or to have tea with Elvis Presley. As for me, I’d be at the New Year’s Concert in Vienna in 1992.
That year the concert was conducted by the remarkable Carlos Kleiber, son of the distinguished Austrian conductor Erich Kleiber. After living for a time in Argentina and studying in New York and Zurich, Carlos Kleiber made his debut in Germany in 1954 conducting Karl Millöcker’s operetta Gasparone. He was assistant music director at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf and Duisburg (1958-64) and at the Opera in Zürich (1964-66), becoming music director in Stuttgart (1966-73), his last permanent post.
Unlike most conductors, Kleiber restricted his guest conducting to select occasions. He made his British debut in 1966 at the Edinburgh Festival with a performance of Berg’s opera Wozzeck, a work his father had conducted at its premiere in 1925. He made his Bayreuth debut in 1974 with a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In 1989, following Herbert von Karajan’s resignation from the Berlin Philharmonic, Kleiber was offered but declined the post of music director.
An extremely private man, Keliber kept out of the public eye and never gave an official interview. He often cancelled engagements at the last minute, yet he was one of a handful of conductors genuinely admired by orchestral players. Working with orchestras, often with extra rehearsal time, he focused contouring the sound, making lines sing, subtly inflecting mood, and a hundred details overlooked in less well prepared performances.
Kleiber made few recordings, all of which are regarded as fine. His versions of Beethoven’s fifth and seventh symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and of the fourth, sixth, and seventh with the Bavarian State Orchestra are notable. Others include Brahms’ fourth symphony and Schubert’s third and eighth symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic, and superb recordings of the operas Der Freischütz, Die Fledermaus, La Traviata, and Tristan und Isolde.
After Kleiber’s death in 1994 in what appear to have been unusually sad circumstances, music critic Norman Lebrecht wrote a sour grapes review in which he identified “a silken cord of snobbishness [that] now separates [those] who witnessed the master in the flesh from the multitudes who merely heard his achievements on record. Those who saw him in action have something to tell their grandchildren, the others don’t. So there.” That rather misses the point.
There is a recording of Kleiber conducting the 1992 New Year’s Day concert. Listen especially to the overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor, to the waltz Village Swallows from Austria, and the inevitable Blue Danube waltz. There is also a great web site with video clips. I never saw Carlos Kleiber “in action”, although I have listened to his recordings. The aural magic, the elegance, the nostalgia, style, wit, élan, and sheer joy of 1992 make it my choice for time travel – once the technical difficulties have been ironed out.