Michael Jarrell is a Swiss composer with a considerable reputation in mainland Europe – he was appointed Chevalier to the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2004. He is making the most of his current residency in Berlin as a visiting fellow at the city’s Institute for Advanced Study. As well as a recent performance of his monodrama Cassandre at the Philharmonie, he has been commissioned to write a viola concerto for Tabea Zimmermann and the Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra, to be performed in 2017. This week, he was the subject of a composer portrait given by the Ensemble United Berlin under their Artistic Advisor and long-time conductor Vladimir Jurowski.

Vladimir Jurowski © Roman Gontcharov
Vladimir Jurowski
© Roman Gontcharov

The first of three chamber pieces performed in the Konzerthaus’ studio space was the 1987 piece Modifications. Composed whilst studying at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM centre in Paris, the work is inspired by the novel of the same name by French author Michel Butor. In the novel’s winding plot, a man traverses Europe in pursuit of his mistress, but ends up rejected, back where he began. Jarrell employs the idea of circuitous motion in a work propelled by a piano solo, precisely performed by Yoriko Ikeya, which is in shifting dialogue with a small string, wind and brass ensemble. Beginning with a repeated single note in the piano, the piece expands to an ensemble flurry, before contracting back to a single note at the end.

Drobern schmettert ein greller Stein, for double bass, ensemble and electronics, was composed in 2001 and takes its title from a poem by modernist writer and postal worker August Stramm. The poet’s barren imagery is the starting point for an exploration of the dark resonances of the double bass. Matthias Bauer was impressive as the multi-tasking soloist, using harmonics and a variety of extended techniques to summon up the vast sonic overtones of the instrument. Exploring new frontiers of sound brings with it a new set of challenges. Jarrell integrates space-age electronic soundscapes into the piece through both on- and off-stage electronics, and makes use of an extensive array of exotic percussion instruments. Jurowski, and the unfortunate percussionists, remained unflappable throughout.

Before turning to composition, Jarrell was a student of Fine Arts, and was particularly inspired by Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. Jarrell’s music sometimes recalls the artist’s vertiginous sculptures, making ghostly gestures with sound, and stretching chords paper-thin across an ensemble. His 1995 work Music for a While – the final piece of the Ensemble’s portrait – takes the opening bars of Henry Purcell’s famous air as the basis for an atmospheric, jazz-inflected piece. A moody repeated chord at the beginning of the piece was joined by congas and muted brass, and a chilled-out improvisatory duet for vibraphone and celeste. A fluttering bird-like clarinet passage and a spritely dancing piccolo solo evoked Messiaen and Debussy respectively – a pair of composers that loom large in Jarrell’s compositional heritage. The piece moved at a glacial pace, but the beauty of individual moments was arresting; Jarrell shares Boulez’s fastidiousness in creating stunning sonic effects. Indeed, Jurowski and the Ensemble brought a particular brilliance to Jarrell’s work that painted a vivid portrait of the composer.