Nicolas Bacri: Symphony no. 4, op. 49 ‘Classique Sturm und Drang’

performed by the Tapiola Sinfonietta under Jean-Jacques Kantorow

(available on this album on Spotify)

My music is not neo-Classical, it is Classical, for it retains the timeless aspect of Classicism : the rigour of expression. My music is not neo-Romantic, it is Romantic, for it retains the timeless aspect of Romanticism : the density of expression. My music is Modern, for it retains the timeless aspect of Modernism : the broadening of the field of expression. My music is Postmodern, for it retains the timeless aspect of Postmodernism : the mixture of techniques of expression.

Nicolas Bacri

(cover image by David Clode)

Nicolas Bacri was born on November 23, 1961 in Paris. He began his piano lessons at the age of 7, and studied harmony, counterpoint, analysis and composition as a teen with Françoise Levechin-Gangloff, (female) organist and professor who is still alive at the time of this writing.

Bacri entered the Paris Conservatoire and studied with Serge Nigg, among others. As of June 2018, he has composed seven symphonies, two operas, nine string quartets, four violin concertos, four piano trios, and much more.

Today’s work, his fourth symphony, dates from 1995, and is just… absolutely has to be one of the most remarkably vivid, exciting, compact, timeless pieces of music I’ve ever heard. With its title, you may expect it, without even listening, to have something in common with Prokofiev’s Classical symphony, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The major difference, in appreciating this work, is that Bacri’s effort is more genuine, rather than a caricature or pastiche of the classical era/style.

I say it’s timeless because it encapsulates (obviously) the vibrance and liveliness of the Classical era, but treats it in such a way as could only be done with so much more musical history behind us, in that context. It has the roar and swells and fullness of a Romantic work, but the bite and occasional ferocity that we hear show it to be a much more modern work. There’s a lot of daring here, real power in such a tiny package.

What we’ll also note, that really is, I feel, almost irrelevant to the work, is that each of the four movements is dedicated to someone, an homage to one of four composers, and honestly, I think I would be hard-pressed to listen to it and say, “Ah, yes, this is definitely in so’n’so’s style.” The first movement is an homage to Richard Strauss, and perhaps we can hear some parallel in the very earliest works of the Austrian composer, but again, I won’t give these details any more than a passing mention.

The first movement, like all the movements, is under four minutes (three and a half, like the second) and has a clear sonata form, as we would expect from a work that cues the listener to consider the centuries-old tradition of the symphonic form. The Sturm und Drang style (‘storm and drive,’ ‘storm and urge,’ or ‘storm and stress,’), specifically, is noted for “extremes of emotion.” Wikipedia says:

The principal themes tend to be angular, with large leaps and unpredictable melodic contours. Tempos and dynamics change rapidly and unpredictably in order to reflect strong changes of emotion. Pulsing rhythms and syncopation are common, as are racing lines in the soprano or alto registers. Writing for string instruments features tremolo and sudden, dramatic dynamic changes and accents.

That’s not supposed to read like a checklist, but we’ll hear that approach in this work.

In this first symphony, we obviously hear things that Haydn never done and never would have done, but if he’d had the context and hindsight from the past two and a half centuries, can you not see how this maybe would be sort of the synthesis of how a modern approach would sound? It’s pulse-quickeningly exciting.

The second movement, an homage to Stravinsky (not the Stravinsky of Le Sacre, for sure; maybe Pulcinella? Is that the one?). Still, though, it reminds me far more of Prokofiev, whose delicacy in his first symphony is also very charming. This second movement is a good example of how the work is unabashedly straightforward, and its quaint, even balletic, charm is really irresistible. There’s a fragility to it that contrasts so well with the third and shortest (by 15 seconds) movement.

The third movement is an homage to Schoenberg, but I hear the mischief of Prokofiev even more strongly here. The minuet faces in the direction of dainty, but like a cute cat, does bear claws. The trio moves just barely away, like out to a covered porch rather than actually outside for a breath of fresh air. The minuet is flirty, intoxicating in its sudden changes and excitement. I just love it.

The final movement, rounding out a quartet of homages, goes to Kurt Weill, and is (barely) the longest movement of the work, at still just shy of four minutes. It’s just… there’s no other word: it’s fun! There’s almost not a single moment of respite in this exciting finale, like children playing nonstop, running down a hill, chasing each other through the forest, only stopping briefly to shout at one another or share a newly-made rule. There are only a few pauses here with quiet chirps, but aside from that, even when the English horn tries to calm things down with a solo, the strings still buzz nervously in the background.

There’s a clear coda that jumps into fugue, where instruments take turns entering, generating even greater excitement for the final few punches this exciting piece throws. It is wild and exciting and colorful, vivid, yet exceptionally polished and even restrained at times. It expends its energy not in sweeping, extravagant passages or development of themes, but rather simply in execution of music, that is, the presentation of ideas to get right to the real emotional heart of the matter, and I’m hard pressed at the moment to think of another work that is as down-to-business as this one, and does it so well.

I have listened to this piece dozens of times, and it is a thrill with each listen. I cannot recommend it enough. Stunning.

Well, stay tuned for just one more piece in our French symphony series before we move on to something entirely different. This piece is absolutely one of the undeniable highlights of the series, and tomorrow’s is… not. Thank you so much for reading.

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