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Michael JARRELL (b. 1958)
Music for a While (1995)a [17:20]
Formes-Fragments II b (1999)b [12:35] le pensé et l’être (2002)c [12:04]
Essaims-Cribles (1986/8)d [18:06]
Ernesto Molinari (bass clarinet)d
Neue Vocalisten Stuttgartbc; Klangforum Wienabd; Emilio Pomárico
rec. (live) Espace de projection, IRCAM, Paris, June 2004
AEON AECD 0531 [60:32]

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Michael Jarrell was born in Geneva. He studied with Eric Gaudibert at the city’s conservatory, and in a number of summer schools in the States - e.g. in Tanglewood in 1979. He studied further in Freiburg im Breisgau with Klaus Huber. He already has a sizeable and varied catalogue, and is now working on an opera based on Brecht’s Das Leben des Galilei to be premiered in Geneva in 2006.

I became interested in Jarrell’s music after hearing his beautiful viola concerto From the Leaves of Shadow first performed during the 1992 Ars Musica festival in Liège. Since then, his music has made its way onto disc, such as GMS 8803 published in 1988 and one of AEON’s very first releases (AECD 0101). The present disc focuses on recent pieces, although the earliest dates from the late 1980s. They impart a fairly good idea of Jarrell’s compositional achievement and breadth of vision. All four works have a literary source as point of departure, although only two of them actually set texts. Thus, Essaims-Cribles from 1986/8, a “chamber ballet” for bass clarinet and ensemble, is based on a poem by Patrick Weidmann, of which each line serves to characterise each section of the piece. The title of the work - actually the first line of Weidmann’s poem - also hints at what the music is about. The  “essaims” are swarms or “ribbons” of notes run together in equal rhythmic values and the “cribles” or sieves reflect an elimination of certain of the initial pitches in order to retain specific pitches. These are generally used in sequences of repeated notes. This is a typical Jarrell hallmark. It’s also to be heard in Music for a While and in Modifications for piano and ensemble composed in 1988 (available on GMS 8803). The piece alternates “essaims” and “cribles” in a widely contrasted fashion, including highly virtuosic cadenza-like passages for bass clarinet. The music is tense and relaxed, forceful and meditative, and perfectly reflects the various moods suggested by Weidmann’s words.

Music for a While, for ensemble, alludes to Purcell’s eponymous piece, and quotes a few notes from the Purcell. Globally, this piece is a slow-moving processional characterised by dark scoring and centred on a low pedal note that helps hold the music together. This is in spite of brief violent outbursts trying to disrupt the music’s inexorable flow. The work ends as it began, by slowly fading away in the bass register.

As already mentioned, both Formes-Fragments II b and ... car le pensé et l’être are real settings of various texts. Formes-Fragments II b, for solo SATB, ensemble and electronics, is apparently evolved from an earlier work, Formes-Fragments for six voices, brass and percussion composed in 1987. It sets a text by Leonardo da Vinci dealing with the transience of things, on movement and on questions of perspective (“Look at the light and consider its beauty/ Close your eyes and then look again/ What you see was not there before, and what was there is no longer”). Jarrell’s setting uses hugely varied vocal techniques, but always to telling effect and maintaining the text’s intelligibility at key points, whereas ensemble and electronics weave a resonating, refined, subtly coloured and almost timeless aura.

To give the piece its full title, ... car le pensé et l’être sont une même chose, is scored for six solo voices, each also playing some percussion instruments. The text, taken from some obscure fragments of a philosophical poem by Parmenides, is set - apparently in ancient Greek - in a freer manner than that by da Vinci in Formes-Fragments II b. Words are often completely dismantled and scattered among the six independent vocal lines. They are used more for their sonic potential than for their meaning. The text again reflects Jarrell’s concerns, e.g. in the six and last fragment (“In time [things] will grow up and pass away...”) that clearly parallels the opening words by da Vinci. Jarrell’s setting is remarkably resourceful and evocative, and conjures again a slow-moving, ominous ritual through its sophisticated and imaginative vocal writing.

These performances, recorded live - but you are hardly aware of it - are excellent, carefully prepared and committed; and serve Jarrell’s complex, but strongly expressive music well. This young label is going from strength to strength. This recent release is one of the finest I have heard so far. My record of the month.

Hubert Culot







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