JACQUES HÉTU – String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2

Canadian Contemporary composer Jacques Hétu [1938–2010] wrote at least two string quartets.

The First, composed in 1972, in four movements, is considerably more energised than the Second and begins with some rhythmically probing violin lines. These phrases are cut short in an unusual manner, almost clipped. The intensity is moderate as the violins spin out atonal phrases, interspersed with strong rhythmic thrusts. A succession of short passages vary between rhythmic and more spacious melodic phrases – leading to an air of mystery and soon, a strange ending.

The following movement is mysterious from the start with long, atonal lines reaching out to something unknown. Some mildly jagged chordal sounds in the low register are very evocative. A sense of vigour is now apparent, but it soon descends to the emotional depths of the previous passage. A solo violin wails over a solemn background and features a strong attack with the bow, leading to some piercing notes. This doesn’t last and the violin retreats into the depths of the accompaniment, with long foreboding tones which conclude the movement.

The third movement is brief and opens in a furious manner. Violins stabs are accompanied by an ostinato until a mood, similar to some of the previous movement begins to unfold. This a followed by a return to the frantic, before a short period of atonal pizzicato races furiously to the end.

The final movement has a strange, disjointed nature as two violins construct seemingly random lines. Now they combine in an unusual harmony as they edge their way forward. This entropic passage has the violins scurrying, sometimes with intensity. A new mood ensues as the violins return to an atonal harmony, definitely a feeling of abstraction here. Different passages reappear with some of the earlier frantic activity being present. The end is a sustained dissonant chord from the two violins.

On to the Second Quartet, in three movements, which was written in 1991.

An adagio movement commences the work, with a sparse, lamenting violin line and a measured accompaniment. Gradually the solo violin breaks free for a time, and is then joined by a sympathetic second violin. This section features a gentle atonality – the mood is quite superb. A solo cello is heard and it is absorbed into the music, almost effortlessly. Some quivering of bows form a shimmering background as the violin again becomes the dominant voice. A brief pause leads to the return of the second violin and they drift forward, almost trance-like, eventually leading to a faded ending.

The next movement begins in an energised manner as a tension is developed by all instruments. This soon peters out, leaving an atonal conversation between the violins with occasional cello and violin interjections. Now more energy is heard and the violins spar with pizzicato mutterings from the viola and cello. Again, the energy dissipates and the violins muse, before adopting an animated discussion – the end is sharp.

The final movement features a resonant timbre, at a tempo that is virtually rubato and formless. The violins express a gentle rhythmic pulse and the cello weaves in and around this passage with a great degree of feeling, until it is temporarily overwhelmed by the violins, although they are still quite circumspect. This evokes a marvellous sense of atonal, peaceful beauty. A pause brings about a gentle, sensitive moment of sparse wonder. Long, sustained chords conclude the work.

The review CD, Hetu: Complete Chamber Works for Strings, performed by the New Orford String Quartet also contains enhanced ensemble pieces, Sextet and Serenade, together with some other incidental pieces for string quartet.

This disc can be found on Spotify and there is an alternative version of String Quartet No. 2, by the Saint John String Quartet on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Mildly confronting modernist quartets.


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