Carlos Kleiber's Mozart 'n' Brahms



As part of an especially gluttonous music buying binge this weekend, I picked up three of the reissued Carlos Kleiber DVDs, and last night I worked my way through one of them, the Mozart 36 and Brahms 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1991. It is a remarkable disc.

Now, I’m an acknowledged fan of both Kleibers, so I was expecting to like this. I more than like it. The DVD starts with the Mozart, and how extraordinary it is. Kleiber leads appropriately reduced forces in a remarkably lean and taut yet effortlessly graceful and fluid reading. Never does Kleiber try to make Mozart’s work into a romantic piece with exaggerated playing; rather he keeps everything under perfect control while still bringing to the fore a sense of joy and even introspection when necessary. This performance alone catapults Kleiber into the same category as the best Mozartians (Bohm, Mackerras, Beecham, et al). I’m not intent on hearing his other Mozart symphony.

The Brahms is even better. The last three or four times I’ve listened to this work, it has been to Celi that I turned, in his Munich recording. Obviously, this performance is much different. Kleiber takes the piece at a nicely brisk clip, and he leads the great Vienna Philharmonic in what must be one of the most nimble, graceful, and poignant readings of this work. I can only assume that a great number of rehearsals were used, because absolutely everyone is spot-on. (Yes, there are a few goofs, but they are utterly inconsequential.) Whether he leads the orchestra through energetic, propulsive fast sections, or slows and quiets everything down during more contemplative moments, all is glorious to hear. So delicate is the pianissimo playing, and so stark the contrast when the orchestra returns to playing full force, that I was listening with an attentiveness even greater than normal. The finale to the symphony contains some genuine thrills. This is a great performance of a great work. It is in the same realm as, though obviously different from, the great Bruno Walter’s rightly lauded stereo recording on CBS. (I really need to get the mono cycle, I know.)

Image quality is acceptable, but sound quality is quite good, if a tad glassy from time to time. This DVD is worth every penny and then some. This must surely be one of the best releases of the year.


I was suitably impressed with the recent DVD reissue of Carlos Kleiber’s 1991 Vienna concert of Mozart’s 36th and Brahms’ Second that I figured I should splurge and get his 1996 Munich concert of Mozart’s 33rd and Brahms’ Fourth, with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture thrown in for good measure. I admit to loving his DG recording of the Fourth, so another version should be welcomed. Alas, Mr Kleiber’s winning streak did not continue.

The problems with the DVD are apparent in the opener – the Coriolan. Where’s the energy, the heat, the excitement? That’s what I kept pondering through pretty much the entire nine or so minutes of the piece. Oh, sure, the Bavarian State Orchestra play superbly, and Kleiber brings his inimitable touch to the piece, but it’s all so low voltage. Surely this dramatic piece needs gobs of energy. Well, it’s not a big work, and it’s not the reason I bought the set, so I listened on. Things don’t really improve in the Mozart. Here Kleiber delightfully accents the beautiful string writing, especially in the slow movement, and he keeps everything appropriately lighter, though not exactly HIP, but it lacks the verve of the 36th from five years before.

I thus approached the Brahms Fourth with a bit of trepidation. My trepidation was well founded: the opening movement is somewhat dull. I guess there’s some nicely forceful playing in the swelling string passages, but it’s all low voltage. The slow movement fares better, with Kleiber again bringing out some beautiful details with his immaculate phrasing. But something’s still missing, but by not quite as much. Then, the third movement explodes. Some orchestral and emotional heat are generated as the band digs in and really belts out this piece. Whew! There is something worth hearing. The finale is likewise on fire, and the whole piece comes to a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion. Unfortunately, it is too little, too late. Two genuinely exciting movements within a concert of three works just cannot make up for the lackluster, occasionally boring playing that comes before. The orchestra play well, sound is generally good, and image quality is excellent, but the performance just isn’t up to Mr Kleiber’s usual standard. He looks tired and perhaps ill in the concert, so perhaps he wasn’t in top form at the time. Whatever the cause, I’m sorry to say this really isn’t worth the money. Bummer.

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