About this Recording
8.573395 - HÉTU, J.: Chamber Works for Strings (Complete) (New Orford String Quartet, Dann, C. Carr, Hutchins)
English  French 

Jacques Hétu (1938–2010)
Complete Chamber Works for Strings


A Brief Survey of Jacques Hétu’s Compositional Style

Melodicism, lush harmonies and instrumental discourse are all important elements in Jacques Hétu’s music and his style combines expressivity and angular rhythms within very traditional musical forms. His early compositions, influenced by Bartók, Hindemith and various leading French composers, have a marked sense of polytonality and are imbued with percussive rhythms and harmonic tension. In later years his musical language matured with more open and spacious frameworks and increasingly lyrical expression. Jacques Hétu’s later output was quite different from his early works, and they reflect a compositional trend of the late twentieth century away from atonality and towards a more accessible harmonic language. His core motivic, rhythmic and structural ideas, however, never changed and served as musical constants in all of his works.

String Quartet No. 1, Op. 19 (1972)

The String Quartet, Op. 19 is an early work that shows the composer’s emerging style, one that combines twentieth-century techniques with neo-romantic harmonic language. The quartet is in four movements, each demonstrating full compositional mastery of character and mood. The first movement, Allegro, begins with the opening motive of a tritone (a dissonant and “unresolvable” interval) to establish an angular musical language. All four instruments are in conversation, playing together and then apart, interrupting and changing topics frequently. The second movement, Andante, is a lush and beautiful elegy that builds in dynamic and intensity. The atmosphere is broken by a plaintive viola solo, after which the movement winds down to its conclusion. The third movement, Vivace, is a spirited and nimble scherzo that contrasts a quirky and arrhythmic theme with interludes of glassy and furtive tremolo. A cello solo that evokes some of the more avant-garde melodies of the initial Allegro is at the heart of the movement. The final movement, Allegro, begins with a unison that mirrors the very beginning of the quartet, this time utilizing a much wider version of the tritone for striking effect. A fugue follows, which gains momentum until it is suddenly interrupted by a recollection of the theme from the second movement. After this sudden change of character, the tremolo of the third movement is brought back to break the spell, leading to the rousing conclusion of the work.

String Quartet No. 2, Op. 50 (1991)

Jacques Hétu’s String Quartet, Op. 50 was his second full-length quartet. Written in 1991, several decades after his first string quartet, it exhibits a distinctive stylistic departure from his early works. The quartet is more melodically conceived than his earlier compositions, and features harmonies that are primarily tonal, despite the fact that it is centred upon the motive of a semitone. The work is in three movements, with an energetic and vibrant middle movement bookended by lyrical and melancholy outer movements. The first movement, Adagio, is introduced by a fragile and tender theme in the first violin, which is then developed through all four voices. The cello interrupts with an intense and searching solo line, eventually leading back to the themes from the beginning. The second movement, Vivace, contrasts a central theme of busy tremolo and driving rhythmic figures with alternating episodes which depict lilting dance melodies and canonical pizzicato entrances. The third movement, Andante, was written in memory of Jacques Hétu’s mother, who passed away just prior to the quartet being written. Full of hauntingly beautiful and kaleidoscopic harmonies, the movement is openly emotional, and showcases some of Hétu’s finest writing for strings.

Scherzo for String Quartet, Op. 54 (1992)

The Scherzo, Op. 54 for string quartet was composed in 1992, and showcases the talents of a mature composer in full command of his musical language and creative ideas. The beginning of the Scherzo functions as a prologue, introducing several themes that are used throughout the work, including a sprightly scherzo theme, a noble Andante featuring a lyrical cello solo (which was later used in his Second String Quartet) and a quotation from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The body of the piece is in Rondo form: The main theme of the movement has a true scherzo character in 6/8; fast moving and light, with sudden moments of ferocious group intensity appearing throughout. The secondary theme is more dance-like in nature, with melodic writing that features swaying rhythms in 9/8. These two themes are interspersed with two additional Andante sections, each one slightly different in character, and featuring a solo line above the group.

Adagio and Rondo, Op. 3, No. 1a (1960)

Jacques Hétu’s first foray into string quartet writing, the Adagio and Rondo, Op. 3, was written upon his graduation from the Montreal Conservatory. Motivic and thematic elements from this work can be seen in all of his subsequent chamber works for strings. The Adagio is rather sparsely textured, lending a beautiful simplicity to the long melodic lines and gently pulsing rhythms. The Rondo features a hallmark of Hétu’s writing at the very beginning: a declamatory rhythmic unison in all four voices. This gives way to a bouncing Rondo theme that is passed around all of the instruments. A short fugue and further development of the Rondo theme follow and the movement is brought to a close with a witty and frolicsome final statement.

Sérénade for String Quartet and Flute, Op. 45 (1988)

The Sérénade for String Quartet and Flute was commissioned by G. Hamilton Southam for his wife, Marion, on the occasion of their wedding anniversary. The piece was conceived as a musical commentary based on Act V, Scene I of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It evokes the bucolic tranquility and harmony of a starry summer’s night. A lyrical serenade in three movements, it begins with a brief Prélude, which serves to set the stage. An elaborate Nocturne follows, featuring calm undulating melodies over tremolo strings, depicting Shakespeare’s sweet night music. The finale, a lively Danse, takes the same form as the Nocturne but recalls elements of the Prélude in its coda.

Sextet for Strings, Op. 71 (2004)

The Sextet for Strings was Jacques Hétu’s final chamber work for strings. It takes the form of an introduction and six variations, showing off the rich imagination and masterful writing of Hétu’s later years. The Introduction gradually brings in the instruments in three successive entrances, and follows this with the Theme, a calm and reflective melody. Each successive variation displays Hétu’s creative abilities in his treatment of the Theme. Variation I, with its thick scoring and busy writing is countered by Variation II, a simple and elegant dance. Variation III features the boisterous side of the sextet, with plenty of powerful unison passages in all six voices. Variation IV is a reflection of the original Theme in character and tempo, developing the ideas further and expanding the melodic theme. In perhaps his most interesting writing in the sextet, Variation V begins with grave, slow moving counterpoint reminiscent of medieval chant. This builds in intensity, leading to an outburst in the first cello, which dominates the furious writing in the other voices. The tension slowly recedes, and the calm of the Theme takes over. Variation VI concludes the work with verve, combining energetic pizzicato and nimble tremolo in a whirlwind dance to the finish.

Eric Nowlin

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