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(1890 - 1956)

Although Kleiber was born in Vienna, he lived in Prague with his grandfather after the early deaths of his parents, returning to Vienna to continue his musical education. He was a violin student, but his decision to seek a career as a conductor evidently followed the experience of hearing Mahler conduct his Symphony No. 6. Kleiber entered the Prague Conservatory as a composition student in 1908, gaining a prize for a symphonic poem in 1911. While in Prague he attended rehearsals at the German Theatre, and was eventually taken on as the theatre’s chorusmaster, also in 1911. The following year he moved to Darmstadt as third conductor at the court theatre, where he enjoyed the encouragement of Arthur Nikisch. After the end of World War I, in 1919, Kleiber moved to Barmen-Elberfeld (Wuppertal) as first conductor, thereafter rapidly accepting the same post at Düsseldorf in 1921 and at Mannheim in 1922.

Kleiber’s big break came in 1923 when he conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Berlin Staatsoper, with Frida Leider and Friedrich Schorr. The Staatsoper’s intendant, Max von Schillings, had been seeking a replacement for Leo Blech who had recently resigned as chief conductor, but negotiations with Klemperer, Walter and Zemlinsky had all fallen through. The Staatsoper’s orchestra, singers and public responded enthusiastically to Kleiber’s dynamic lead, and three days after his appearance he was offered and accepted the position of chief conductor with the company. He remained in this post until the end of 1934 and was a major figure in an especially rich period of Berlin’s musical life. The German critic Friedrich Herzfeld described him as ‘an absolute ruler’ at the Staatsoper, drawing a comparison between Kleiber and Napoleon because of their ‘similarity in stature and facial profile’ and their ‘unusual energy’. Kleiber himself once referred to the chief conductor of an opera house as having to behave like ‘a lion in his lair’.

A committed advocate of contemporary music, Kleiber conducted influential productions of Janáček’s Jenůfa, Krenek’s Zwingburg (both 1924), Berg’s Wozzeck (world première, 1925), Schreker’s Der singende Teufel (1928) and Milhaud’s Christophe Colomb (1930), as well as less-well-known operas from the past, such as Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot. In addition he conducted concerts and recordings with the Staatsoper’s orchestra, the Berlin Staatskapelle and with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. As his reputation developed he started to conduct internationally, leading the Vienna Philharmonic both in Vienna and on a tour of Germany, appearing for the first time at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires (1926) and in the USSR (1927), conducting the New York Philharmonic for two series of concerts (1930 and 1931), and enjoying great success in Brussels (1933).

In Berlin, following the death of Max von Schillings, Heinz Tietjen took over as intendant at the Staatsoper. A man who excelled at political manouevring, as well as being an accomplished conductor and producer, he soon aligned himself with the new National Socialist government which gained power in 1933; Kleiber, unwilling to accept the resulting increased political interference with his plans, resigned from his post, after conducting in concert the Suite from Berg’s opera Lulu, which represented cultural anathema to the authorities. His final appearances in Berlin took place during January 1935.

Up until the outbreak of World War II, Kleiber maintained an active career as a guest conductor, appearing in Amsterdam, Brussels, Geneva, Milan, Monte Carlo, Prague and Salzburg. He first conducted in the United Kingdom in 1935, with the London Symphony Orchestra, and led Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden in 1938. In addition from 1937 to 1949 he was in charge of the German repertoire wing at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, eventually settling in Argentina with his family. Kleiber’s biographer, John Russell, has suggested that at the Colón ‘…he came nearest to fulfilling his dreams of a permanent post.’ During World War II and afterwards Kleiber was extremely active throughout Central and South America, conducting in Chile, Cuba (he led the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra from 1943 to 1948), Uruquay and Mexico, as well as Argentina.

After appearing successfully with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York during the 1945–1946 and 1947–1948 seasons, Kleiber returned to Europe in 1948 for concerts and recordings with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and a month later he appeared also with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 1949 (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’) and at the Vienna State Opera (Der Rosenkavalier) in 1951, the year in which he returned as a guest to his old company, the Berlin Staatsoper, now situated in Communist East Berlin. Although coming under pressure from the West Berlin authorities to relinquish commitments in the Eastern sector, instead Kleiber characteristically dropped those in the West and continued to appear both in East Berlin and with the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras. At the same time he was very active in three other spheres: he conducted opera regularly at Covent Garden between 1950 and 1953, introducing Wozzeck to England in a memorable production (1952), and led a powerful account of Verdi’s I vespri siciliani with the young Maria Callas at the Florence Maggio Musicale in 1951.

While developing close links with the emerging radio symphony orchestras set up in post-war Germany by the occupying powers, notably those in Cologne, Hamburg and Stuttgart, Kleiber also recorded extensively for Decca in Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. He was offered and initially accepted the post of chief conductor at the Berlin Staatsoper, on condition that the opera house be rebuilt exactly as it had been. However on hearing in March 1955 that the gilded inscription to the Prussian King Frederick had been removed he immediately resigned from this position. Kleiber’s sudden death on 27 January 1956, the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of his beloved Mozart, put an end to a busy forthcoming schedule that included the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s first tour of the USA and further recordings for Decca.

Erich Kleiber’s death at the relatively young age of sixty-five meant that for a while his reputation did not stand as high as that of some of his contemporaries from the inter-war years in Berlin such as Klemperer and Walter, both of whom lived long enough to enter the age of stereophonic recording. However the addition to Kleiber’s already impressive Decca discography of numerous live performances from the South American and post-war chapters of his career has provided a more rounded picture of his great strengths as a conductor, and it is now possible to view him as one of the very greatest conductors of his generation. Using a long baton, he conducted with economical and exact, if broad, gestures. He sought acute precision in performance and rehearsed with great attention to detail, avoiding an overlay of excessive expression, as he saw it, and insisting on exact readings of the score, believing that ‘…there are two enemies to good performance: one is routine and the other is improvisation.’ In place of excessive sentiment he generated a high level of tension, giving all his readings great character. To quote Herzfeld once again, ‘…he avoids the sentimental espressivo and replaces it with high voltage throughout.’

The high points of Kleiber’s commercial discography are his recordings for Decca. To these recordings should be added many of his post-war German radio performances, particularly those with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. An especially significant document, certainly until Kleiber’s complete 1952 Covent Garden performance is published, is his conducting of Three Fragments from Wozzeck, performed with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1955. All his 1947–1948 concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra have been made generally available; these include characterful readings of music by Borodin, Schubert and Johann Strauss II. Although sonically compromised, recordings of performances from Buenos Aires show Kleiber at full stretch as an operatic conductor and include works by Wagner and Richard Strauss. Last but not least, Kleiber’s extensive pre-war discography should not be overlooked. It includes excellent performances of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World’, with the Berlin Staatskapelle, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 with the Belgian National Orchestra, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, ‘Prague’, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as numerous shorter works such as the overtures to Johann Strauss II’s two most popular operettas, Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron, both with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

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