Only one conductor could be called a genius

I never heard Kleiber, the greatest conductor of the age, in a live concert. Now I never will

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Sometimes, the death of a famous person, when you hear of it, seems like a personal bereavement. This can be so with artists, writers, actors, whose work enters into your private thoughts with such intimacy, it feels as if you are closely acquainted with the mind behind it. When Lucia Popp died at a tragically young age, I found myself in tears, unwilling to accept that her wonderful, aching, tender voice from now on existed only in digital form.

Sometimes, the death of a famous person, when you hear of it, seems like a personal bereavement. This can be so with artists, writers, actors, whose work enters into your private thoughts with such intimacy, it feels as if you are closely acquainted with the mind behind it. When Lucia Popp died at a tragically young age, I found myself in tears, unwilling to accept that her wonderful, aching, tender voice from now on existed only in digital form.

And when I heard that Carlos Kleiber had died, I felt very much the same; the feeling complicated by an odd sort of guilt that I never heard the greatest conductor of the age in a live performance, and now never will.

Admittedly, it was very hard to get to hear Kleiber conduct. He led an exceptionally odd professional life; he never had many pieces in his repertoire, and they grew fewer and fewer as he grew older. Half a dozen operas, oddly assorted - Fledermaus, Tristan, Wozzeck and La Bohème - a dozen concert pieces, and that was about it. His appearances were very rare indeed, and whenever he did conduct a concert, the difficulties of getting a ticket were all but insuperable; even so, there was always the high likelihood that he would cancel, often for no stated reason.

His was a career surrounded by rumour and reminiscence. I know that once, in Zurich in 1964, he conducted Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty, that greatest of all ballet scores, and have been told by someone who knew someone who had been there that it was incomparable, scented and luxuriant. Unless a recording ever surfaces, that is going to remain the Tchaikovsky of our dreams, and a very few old memories. Much of his career remains as tantalising as that.

So most of us have had to make do with the recordings. But those on their own justify him as the greatest of conductors. The astonishing Fledermaus, infusing sumptuous Viennese grace with a marvellous lyric fury; or there is the Traviata, pulling untold fine-spun lyricism from lines you thought you knew too well to have to listen to. The refinements of the details are extraordinary: the Violetta's microphone is placed right up against her mouth, so that at the most exuberant moments of coloratura you are always conscious of the deep desperate gulps for breath of the consumptive.

He seemed always to understand a piece so well that you might have been hearing it for the first time. After his Beethoven Five and Seven, and the superlative 1989 concert of Viennese waltzes - that aching throb on the second beat of every bar! - every other rendering seemed wrong, or wilful, or mistaken in its reading. Greatest of all, and something I always thought might well be the greatest recording of any piece of music ever made, was the Tristan recording, with the beautiful lyric power of Margaret Price, and the Leipzig orchestra in full possession of the vast architectural spans of the piece. Wagner thought that a perfect performance of Tristan might send its listeners mad; this one comes so close, it is not advisable to listen to it too often.

But all Kleiber was, surely, was a man standing in front of an orchestra, keeping time with his hands? How on earth does his unmistakable superiority to almost anyone else manifest itself? The art of the conductor is not a very well understood one, even by quite musical people. Certainly, it is such a demanding task to ensure that an orchestra plays all the notes in tune, at the right time, to balance the sound, and to keep them at the tempo requested by the composer, that a conductor who can reliably do that and no more will always be in demand.

There is something beyond that, however, and here we move into something like metaphysics. A great conductor can infuse an orchestra with a sort of communal intelligence; perhaps by innate authority, by evident commitment and a sort of conspicuous confidence which is immediately apparent through his gestures. But there is something stranger, which every orchestral player always knows. It is a sense of rightness, of a natural response to the music. An orchestra will always sense when it is being asked to play against the tendency of the music, or when a piece has an overall awkwardness.

What Kleiber had, supremely, was that sense of naturalness, and even in a musical structure as vast and complex as Tristan, everything moved as it should, developing and growing with exact, considered intelligence. Sometimes you hear a performance where one huge climax succeeds another; in Kleiber, every one was exactly placed, and as soon as the prelude began, you knew that the idea of the third act, topping everything, was already in his mind.

It is so extraordinary, and so unusual a skill that I doubt we will ever see anything to match it in our lifetimes. There are not very many really superb conductors, though there are some; in my view, there was only one who could plausibly be described as a genius. Of course, one dreams of those lost performances; of course, one fantasises about pieces he might have transformed - what would a Kleiber Lulu have been like? But in this small body of preserved work, there is evidence of true greatness at work.

And now I'm going to pour a glass of champagne to his memory, and put on the last act of La Traviata.

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