Tuesday, May 17, 2011


That's last night's full moon rising through the blue and pink twilight over the gully. By midnight it was high and white in the sky, throwing its light across the lawn and turning the pebbled driveway into a creamy arc with arms tapering into the darkness of the trees. There'll be a frost in the morning I thought, looking out the bedroom windows.

I was finishing the last pages of David Rieff's painful catharsis on his mother's death, Swimming in a Sea of Death. Susan Sontag 1933 - 2004, life the little dash between the dates. I was reading about her internment in Montparnasse, in the city to which she was, as I understand him, most attached, among the graves of some of the great writers. She was first and foremost a writer, a writer very attached to this world, and even writing that, this world, I know how inappropriate an expression it is for her, that this implies some other, which for her there wasn't. There was only the world. Repeatedly she struggled with the prospect of her extinction, nothingness. It's not so hard therefore to understand the desperateness to cling on, the anger at the loss of specialness, the frustration with inadequateness of science, and the difficulties in dealing with the beliefs of others, whose comforts and well meaning platitudes brought no solace.

I had wandered into Cemetery Montparnesse many years ago on a day scripted for such a visit, cold with light rain, myself and only one other, moving around slowly in the distance, in long black coats under black umbrellas. Not far from the gates I was drawn to a grave, the slab covered in small stones, each weighing down a hand written note, words bleeding in the wet. The remains of Simone de Beauvoir and Satre lay there. David Rieff in those final pages quotes de Beauvoir, who had herself written of her own mother's death, also from cancer : "whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you cling to living, immortality is no consolation for death".

Tomorrow is the centenary of Gustav Mahler's death and The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has programmed his 9th - the final complete symphony, if not the last word. His anniversary is thoughtfully bookended by the 9th and 10th (except for the Adagio, incomplete at the time of Mahler's death)

Mr Ashkenazy had chosen the Rudolf Barshai completion. How different it is to the more frequently performed Cooke version, I don't know. If truth be known, I'd stayed away from 'completions', somehow stuck in the belief that, well, if Mahler didn't finish it, it isn't. I'd last heard the Adagio live in 1988 in the same hall when the Chicago came (for the Australian Bicentenary) with Solti, casting a long shadow with their justifiably famous string sound.

This 10th we heard was nonetheless a particularly moving performance with many I suspect hearing it (the Barshai) for the first time. The auditorium was exceptionally still, concentrating, almost breath-holding for the duration. The Adagio is one of those intensely exposed movements that imperfections rob mercilessly of its impact, not to mention that long Chicago shadow. By the second movement, it seemed as if Mahler had all but 'crossed over', reflecting as much on his death as his life, before being swept away in the closing passages to a place, if at all, I suspect Mahler was dreadfully uncertain about. The death screams from the brass were chilling, the solitary drum of the fireman's funeral perhaps less effective, and by the final movement the strings had gelled into a sheen and luminance the work deserves. At the close, there were a few unusual moments of silence and wonder. Ashkenazy looked pleased, and in a rare display, encouraged the audience into an appreciation growing slowly, too slowly he must have thought, till some stood. If there was uncertainty, it was not about the playing, rather that Mahler man and what he was thinking.

The 9th, complex and mysterious, will be critical I think in how Ashkenazy's great Mahler tribute is perceived. The odyssey will finish later in the year with the 2nd, the Resurrection, a brilliant conclusion, if not, who knows, exactly where Mahler finally stood at the end. Though it may simply be a matter of logistics, the programming I mean. How fortunate we have been.

David Rieff' calls resurrection a "Christian fairy tale". Stephen Hawking believes the afterlife a "fairy story for people afraid of the dark". I believe in uncertainty. I defend doubt.

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