Discovering Jacques Hétu

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HÉTU: Sur les rives du Saint-Maurice, Op. 78. Piano Concerto No. 2.* Trombone Concerto, Op. 57+ / *Jean-Philippe Sylvestre, pno; +Alain Trudel, tb; Orchestre Symphonique de Laval; Alain Trudel, cond / Atma Classique ACD2 2793

Jacques Hétu (1938-2010) was a Canadian composer whose work tended towards the modernism of the 1930s and ‘40s, writing music that was largely tonal with some interesting underlying harmonies. The booklet notes put it this way:

Jacques Hétu’s astonishing accomplishment was to have survived and prospered while flatly refusing to belong to any coterie, cult, or school. Moreover, he succeeded in establishing himself as the Canadian composer whose works are most frequently played throughout the world.

He was a loner, independent and even unsociable. “What’s essential,” he wrote, “is not to look for some novel way of arranging sounds but to find your own way of thinking about music.” This was his creed, and he championed and exemplified it in every one of the 82 works he left us.

To a certain extent, Hétu’s music was so reactionary that some of it could be played on your local classical radio station and not ruffle any feathers, but its unusual melodic contours and consistently ingenious feeling for rhythm and orchestral color gave it some interest. This is evident in the opening piece on this CD, Sur les rives du Saint-Maurice, with its expansive melodic line modified by swirling wind figures and staccato interjections. He was also a master colorist, combining, you might say, the German-American sense of structure with a French ear for color.

The opening of his Piano Concerto is a perfect example of this. Opening with just the solo instrument, playing in a somewhat opaque, Impressionist style, the pianist slowly increases the volume before the orchestra enters, playing energetic but long lines behind it, later moving to a series of edgy string passages in double time with the brass playing slower but more impassioned figures underneath. It is the kind of concerto where the composer envisions a continuous line of music in which the piano is but one instrument used to advance the evolution of the score. A bit later on, the solo piano picks up on the edgy string phrases as the music evolves in that direction. Hétu uses some whole-tone scales in the ensuing piano solo portion of the first movement. In the last, Hétu throws in some whole-tone scales for interest.

The Trombone Concerto is altogether more strikingly dramatic, particularly at the outset, with the soloist playing some strange bitonal lines while string tremolos play in the background. This leads to a more energetic section with staccato trumpet figures as the music increases in both tempo and nervous energy. Hétu continues to play with tempo and rhythm throughout this first movement as the music develops, and often pushes the solo trombone into its lower depths. Alas, the second movement is more conventional and earthbound, while the third sort of meanders along in the beginning, only to pick up a bit, add some more string tremolos, and move on, but it sounds more formulaic and less inventive than the piano concerto.

So there you have it. To my ears, Hétu was a solid composer with some interesting ideas but one who fell into his own sort of rut. Some of the music here is quite interesting, other parts of it not so much.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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