For many classical music lovers, nothing can compare to a live performance. While studio recordings promise greater precision and better sound quality — along with the absence of distracting audience noise – often this comes at the expense of spontaneity and immediacy.
And for a piece of music as viscerally thrilling as Florent Schmitt’s Psalm XLVII, Op. 38, composed in 1904, the excitement is even more exhilarating in a live presentation. But concert performances of this music are still quite rare.
Fortunately for us, the full measure of excitement is captured in nine live recordings of this music that are currently available on CD or via high-res download. Even better, they’re directed by some of classical music’s great conductors — among them Désiré Inghelbrecht, Jean Martinon, Eugene Ormandy, Jean Fournet, Louis Frémaux and Leon Botstein.
Here are details on each of these live recordings, along with links to where they can be heard or purchased:
Désiré Inghelbrecht/L’Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F. & Chorus (1957, 1958 and 1964):
These performances are historically important in that this conductor was the one who gave the world premiere performance of Psalm XLVII back in 1906.
Maestro Inghelbrecht would return to the score numerous times in the ensuing decades, culminating in a performance in 1957, a 1958 Schmitt memorial concert, plus a later 1964 concert the conductor gave a short time before his own death.
While the three performances are a bit rough-hewn, they are well worth hearing.
The 1957 performance features the mezzo-soprano Geneviève Moizan, whose dark-hued interpretation of the important vocal solo in the Psaume‘s middle section is rather different from the way we usually hear these passages — and it’s very impressive, indeed. This broadcast performance is available from St-Laurent Studio in a CD that also includes works by Claude Debussy conducted by Inghelbrecht.
The 1958 performance was part of an O.R.T.F. memorial concert of Florent Schmitt’s music performed two months after his death, which also featured Régine Crespin as the soprano soloist. The full 90-minute concert, containing the Psaume and four other Schmitt works, is available from the archives of French Radio and Television, including as a high-res download.
The later 1964 performance by Maestro Inghelbrecht is also available from the same source, including as a high-res download.
Fritz Munch/Strasbourg Municipal Orchestra & Chorus (1954):
One could say that soprano Geneviève Moizan practically “owned” the soprano part to Psaume XLVII during the 1950s and early 1960s after Denise Duval stopped singing it. One of Moizan’s earliest performances of the piece has been released by Forgotten Records. The concert performance dates from 1954 and features the Strasbourg Municipal Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Fritz Munch. Maestro Munch was the older brother of Charles Munch, whose international career — including a celebrated tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — far eclipsed Fritz’s own career as a conductor and music administrator.
In additional to Moizan’s impressive solo work in this 1954 reading, Fritz Munch’s performance of the final moments of the Psaume is particularly notable in how precisely he follows the composer’s explicit instructions noted in the score regarding quickening the tempo and rhythmic emphasis. Indeed, Munch’s may well be the most effective treatment of those ending measures among all the concert performances of the music that I’ve heard.
Louis Frémaux/Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur + Ensemble Instrumental du Grand-Casino de Vichy (1956):
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Vichy International Festival was among the most important music festivals in France. In 1956, the conductor Louis Frémaux brought Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII to the festival, leading a performance that featured soprano Jacqueline Brumaire along with the Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur — the choir group that had made the first commercial recording of the Psaume (with Paris Conservatoire musicians) four years earlier.
The Frémaux is a highly-charged interpretation — so super-exciting, it almost goes off the rails the final moments of the piece. Despite the untidiness in a few spots, Fremaux’s way with the score makes for an undeniably thrilling experience! It’s been released on the Forgotten Records label and is available for purchase at the label’s website.
Jean Martinon/L’Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F. & Chorus (1973):
This was the public performance that preceded Jean Martinon’s celebrated recording of the Psalm, released by EMI and still considered a touchstone recording by many music lovers 40 years on.
In the live performance, the huge pipe organ played by famed organist Gaston Litaize is missing, but the overall excitement level is incredibly high.
As in the EMI recording, the live performance features the dazzling soprano soloist Andréa Guiot.
This performance is also available from French Radio and Television, including as a high-res download. (A low-res version is also available on YouTube.)
Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra + Mendelssohn Club Chorus (1977):
This concert performance, which also features soprano Kathryn Bouleyn, appears to have been very well-received by the audience — if the hearty applause heard at the end of the piece is any indication.
Those interested in investigating Maestro Ormandy’s approach to this work should definitely take action while the recording remains available.
Jean Fournet/Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra + Shinyu-kai Chorus (1992):
The French conductor Jean Fournet was the music director of this Japanese orchestra for many years, during which time he programmed much French music including Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII and La Tragédie de Salomé.
This live concert performance of the Psalm, captured in 1992, has been issued commercially on Fontec, a Japanese CD label.
I consider it the most effective of these nine live performances based on a combination of the interpretation, musical precision, and sound quality. The CD recording is available for purchase from Fontec directly.
Leon Botstein/American Symphony Orchestra + Bard Festival Chorale (2012):
The most recent of the nine live performances is the swiftest interpretation of the Psalm I’ve ever heard. Perhaps as a result of this, there are a number of instances when the orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist aren’t quite in sync with one another, which will prove problematic for some listeners’ enjoyment of the musical presentation.
Maestro Botstein first performed this work with the ASO back in 1997 – a concert I was fortunate to attend. That time, he adopted the “conventional” tempo (which I find more effective — and ultimately more successful). Still, it’s good to have this 2012 rendition so readily available through Amazon.
Without doubt, Psaume XLVII is one of the most exhilarating choral works in the musical literature. Hearing it in the “immediacy” of a live concert atmosphere makes the excitement even more palpable – which is why these nine performances are so necessary to hear.
Simply put, they’re glorious renditions. You’re missing out on something special if you don’t explore them.
[If you have any personal observations about these performances that you’d like to share for the benefit of other readers, please leave a comment below.]