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Hit by a love bomb

Here was a conductor who knew how to impress

Who Was Carlos Kleiber?
Radio 3

Radio 3's documentary Who Was Carlos Kleiber? (26 September, 12.15pm) simply exploded with love. "Carlos was the greatest conductor and the greatest musician I have ever met," said Plácido Domingo, the first in a queue of delirious interviewees. Followed by "his was charisma beyond any human definition of it", "his eyes said 'I know everything''' and "he inspired a special kind of excitement that bordered on ecstasy".

Better check this brother out on YouTube, I reckoned, and quickly found him stuck into Beethoven, flourishing a super-slim baton in the manner of a person standing at the intercom of an enormous apartment block and pressing all the buttons, desperately searching for his ex. The small, cultured teeth, the bird-fine cheekbones, the fierce intakes of breath as the orchestra boomed, covering what you felt certain were lots of little isn't-this-wonderful noises he was making. In short: not a face that screamed, "All my friends are dead or in jail." Not a face that was going to be boring you all night with sixth-former theories about how Taxi Driver is "a film about loneliness" (don't get me started).

Ah, the whole thing made me well up a little over, oh I dunno, life, and love, and 1986 for definite, with its network of concert-goers wrapped in loose coats and wearing earrings that doubled as squeaky elephants. (Have you ever read the comments underneath old concert footage on YouTube btw? Favourite recent postings: "what karajan does to bach should not be done to dog" and "On a personal note, I was lying with my v beautiful girlfriend when I first heard fledermaus and she might as well not have been in the frickin room. That memory is 1 I will cling to".)

All the usual stuff about Kleiber was trotted out - but how good it always is to hear. That he lived in a hut with a dancer, that he cancelled more often than he ever appeared, that he once asked to be paid with a mid-range Audi. The main thrust of the programme was that the workshy maestro was not lazy, but in fact cripplingly insecure. He had a consuming horror of any kind of recognition. One colleague described arranging to meet him, only he kept changing the location over and over, utterly hysterical. Just like Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief, your reviewer mused. Cut to a break for yet more delirious praise.

My buzz from this shameless, neck-throbbing rush of welcome sweet-talk was a relief from that morning, when the presenters on 5 Live Breakfast (weekdays, 6am-10am) had debated the rise in prenups. "Many people say it's not romantic," said a lawyer in the dread accents of a person proud to be aggressively non-creative. "But if you talk to people in other jurisdictions it's actually quite normal. Like in Germany . . ." And not a single call came through in response. I'm talking molto pianissimo, people. Merely the sound of a nation going through its drawers looking for opinions on prenups, and finding only dust. "Do call," said the presenter, sorrowfully, "because it would be good to hear from you. Just call us . . . yeah, that'd be great."

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people