There is little question that Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII, Op. 38, composed in 1904, is one of the most powerful compositions in the choral repertoire.
Indeed, the forces called for in this music — large chorus, large orchestra, soprano solo and organ — make it nearly unique in the French repertoire. When it had its premiere in 1906, it hit the Parisian music world like a thunderbolt.
Audiences knew they were hearing something much more significant than just the first performance of a new work. The French poet and essayist Léon-Paul Fargue echoed the sentiments of many when he wrote of the Psalm: “A great crater of music is opening up.” Maurice Ravel declared the music “powerful and profound,” and others spoke of Schmitt as “the new Berlioz.”
The music director for the premiere was Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, the famous French conductor who would never tire of performing the Psalm. Indeed, Maestro Inghelbrecht performed it last in 1964, nearly 60 years later.
That 1964 concert, along with six other live performances led by conductors such as Eugene Ormandy and Leon Botstein, have been captured for posterity and are listed in this post, including links to those performances.
[For additional background on the music and how it came to be composed, this additional article provides details.]
But what about commercially-released recordings of the Psalm? There have been seven of them released over the years (two of them live concert recordings) … but the first of them didn’t appear until nearly a half-century after the work was composed.
That first one was a celebrated recording, made by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in the presence of the composer. The star-studded cast of performers included the Elisabeth Brasseur Chorale along with Denise Duval, a well-loved soprano who would go on to portray several important Poulenc opera heroines in the 1950s and 1960s — and who was with us until 2016 (well into her nineties) as a teacher and vocal coach.
Also featured on the premiere recording was the great organist-composer Maurice Duruflé, along with the entire massed forces directed by conductor Georges Tzipine. The record was quite a sensation when it was released in France; the author and reviewer Gilbert Sigaux mirrored many others when he described the recording as “une grande oeuvre et un grand disque” in the June 1953 issue of the magazine Les Disques.
You can listen to this recording of the Psalm courtesy of the MQCD Musique-Classique website, using this link, or via this YouTube upload.
Twenty years would go by before the appearance of the next commercial recording. And for many music lovers, it is this one that remains the touchstone recording. In it, Jean Martinon directs the ORTF’s musical forces, supported by the ravishing soprano solo of Andréa Guiot and the powerful pipe organ of the Salle Wagram as played by the legendary Gaston Litaize.
In the views of some, the Martinon recording has never been surpassed, even though three additional commercial recordings have appeared in more recent years featuring the conductors Marek Janowski, Thierry Fischer and Yan-Pascal Tortelier.
Speaking personally, I find the 2006 Tortelier recording, made in São Paulo, Brazil, equally as inspired as the Martinon. But in truth, each of the various interpretations has its own merits.
Indeed, we are lucky to have these many choices, because to undertake a recording of the Psalm takes a substantial artistic and financial commitment.
Listed below are details on each of the commercial recordings of Psaume XLVII, with two live concert renditions included. One is Jean Fournet’s 1992 live concert recording that has been released commercially on the Japanese Fontec label. It’s an idiomatic reading led by a conductor who was perhaps somewhat underrated during his career.
The other is Leon Botstein’s 2012 live concert performance at the Bard Festival, which is now available from the American Symphony Orchestra (via Amazon) as a download-only item.
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur; Denise Duval, soprano; Maurice Duruflé, organist; Georges Tessier, violinist; Georges Tzipine, conductor. Recorded November 23-24, 1952 (in the presence of the composer), Palais de Chaillot (Paris) … Original LP release: EMI/Columbia FCX 171 and Angel 35020 … CD reissue: EMI 585204-2 (with music by Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, Roussel, Tailleferre)
L’Orchestre National et Chœurs de l’O.R.T.F.; Andréa Guiot, soprano; Gaston Litaize, organist; Jean Martinon, conductor. Recorded October 13-14, 1972, Salle Wagram (Paris) (Winner, Académie du Disque Français award, 1974)… Original LP release: EMI/Pathé Marconi C 069-12166 and EMI ASD 2892 Stereo/Quadraphonic … CD reissue: EMI CDC 749748-2 (with music by Schmitt, Debussy) and EMI 764368-2 (with music by Roussel) and Erato ICON 2564-615497 (part of an omnibus 14-disc set titled “Jean Martinon: The Late Years”)
L’Orchestre Philharmonique et Chœurs de Radio-France; Sharon Sweet, soprano; Jean-Louis Gil, organist, Guy Commentale, violinist; Marek Janowski, conductor. Recorded May 1989, Église de Notre-Dame du Travail (Paris) … Original CD release: Erato 2292-45029-2 Stereo … CD reissue: Apex 2564-62764-2 (with other music by Schmitt) and Erato 8573-85636-2 (with other music by Schmitt)
[The Janowski recording has also been uploaded to YouTube in conjunction with the score, and can be viewed here.]
Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra; Shinyu-kai Chorus; Shinobu Sato, soprano; Naomi Matsui, organist; Jean Fournet, conductor. Recorded December 8, 1992 (live concert recording), Suntory Hall (Tokyo) … Original CD release: Fontec FOCD 9249 Stereo (with music by Debussy, Rameau)
BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales; Christine Buffle, soprano; Charles Harrison, organist; Leslie Hatfield, violinist; Thierry Fischer, conductor. Recorded October 24-25, 2006, Brangwyn Hall, Guildhall (Swansea) … Original CD release: Hyperion DCA 67599 Stereo (with other music by Schmitt)
Orquesta Sinfónica e Coro do Estado de São Paulo; Susan Bullock, soprano; Cláudio Cruz, violinist; Yan-Pascal Tortelier, conductor. Recorded July 5-9, 2010, Júlio Prestes Cultural Center (São Paulo) … Original CD release: Chandos CHSA 5090 Super Audio (with other music by Schmitt)
American Symphony Orchestra; Bard Festival Chorale; Lori Guilbeau, soprano; Leon Botstein, conductor. Recorded August 18, 2012 (live concert recording), Sosnoff Theatre, Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY USA) … Download-only available from the American Symphony Orchestra through Amazon Stereo
It is a measure of the worthiness of this music that every single one of the commercial recordings ever made of Schmitt’s Psalm 47 remains available today.
Update (11/4/22): Similar to the Fournet and Botstein live performance discussed above, another live performance of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII has now been released — and it’s an important historical document in that it comes from a memorial concert that was presented at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on October 9, 1958, shortly after the death of the composer the previous August.
While it isn’t the most polished performance of the music, it is noteworthy in that the featured soprano soloist is Régine Crespin, with ORTF musicians and chorus members under the direction of Désiré Inghelbrecht. The recording (which also includes the four other Schmitt compositions that were performed at the same memorial concert) is now available from St-Laurent Studio, and I’m happy to report that the sonics are quite decent.