On Sunday afternoon, March 1, 2015, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester Berlin), joined by American soprano Jacquelyn Wagner, performed Florent Schmitt’s monumental Psalm 47, Opus 38. The concert was presented in Philharmonie Hall, famed for its sonic splendor.
The forces were led by Marek Janowski, artistic director of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, who has been a passionate advocate for this music for decades.
In fact, Maestro Janowski has made one of the relatively few commercial recordings of this piece, in a performance featuring soprano Sharon Sweet and the ONF orchestra and chorus (first released in 1989 on the Erato label).
Eric Butruille, a faithful reader of the Florent Schmitt Blog, traveled from Lyon, France to attend the Berlin concert, which also featured the Poeme de l’extase by Alexander Scriabin and the Shéherézade song cycle by Maurice Ravel.
I asked Mr. Butruille to share his observations about the live performance of Psalm 47 for the benefit of those of us who were unable to travel to Berlin for the concert. His responses to my questions are presented below:
PLN: What were your overall impressions of the Berlin performance of Psaume XLVII?
EB: The concert, led in an exemplary manner by Marek Janowski, was an amazingly emotional musical experience. Indeed, it was a rare glimpse of musical perfection, in which the quality of the music performed was at the same top level of musical execution as the concert hall’s acoustics. That is such a rare combination of occurrences in the concert experience!
PLN: How did the audience respond to the music?
EB: The only frustration pertaining to this concert was the size of the audience: Many of the side balconies were empty. Perhaps it was the “Sunday afternoon concert” effect — or perhaps the ignorance of audiences about the beauties of Schmitt’s music and the other works on the program (Scriabin plus some lesser-known Ravel).
It was difficult to tell if many people in the audience knew the Psalm previously; likely it was a new discovery for most of them.
But at the end of the work, the audience reaction was very positive, cheering the maestro and the orchestra as much as the chorus and the wonderful soprano soloist, Jacquelyn Wagner.
PLN: Can you share any specific observations about the soprano soloist and the choir in how they performed the music?
EB: Never before — live or in recordings — have I heard such fine balances between the chorus and the soloist in this music. The sound was almost dreamlike: surreal, like an angel floating on waves of divine sounds.
Jacquelyn Wagner’s warm and mysterious tone was perfect in the soprano solo. The 75-member chorus was rhythmically very tight, with very good pronunciation and a very secure pitch (which, in the final section of the Psalm in particular, can be tricky for the sopranos).
The mastery of the nuances, from ppp to fff, and the balance with the orchestra was just amazing — probably with the help of the exceptional acoustics of the Pharharmonie Hall.
PLN: The score of this piece includes an important part for organ, which is sometimes a bit of a disappointment in concert performances. How about in this Berlin performance?
EB: In the score the organ, except for a brief modulating section, never has a solo part that would flatter the intrinsic qualities of the instrument. So, even though the Philharmonie’s organ cannot compare with the great French church organs at La Trinité or St-Etienne-du-Mont, for instance, this did not detract from the overall effect.
Indeed, it contributed perfectly to the overall “grand sound” of the orchestra.
PLN: How does the Berlin performance compare with any other live concert performances you may have heard of this music?
EB: Up until now, I had attended only one other live performance of the Psalm: a Radio-France concert back in 1999 with Jeffrey Tate conducting and Inva Mula as the soprano soloist. The acoustics of the Radio-France Auditorium in that 1999 concert cannot, of course, compare with those of the marvelous Berlin Philharmonie Hall.
Beyond that, if my memory serves, the performance, as interpreted by Jeffrey Tate, was less convincing as well: very slow (sluggish) tempi, which put Mme. Mula in terrible vocal danger. She managed to keep the vocal line going, but not without some tension.
More happily, the orchestra and chorus were fine, in my memory. But clearly, the Berlin performance was superior on nearly every count.
EB: It has been a while since I’ve heard that recording, and I’d have to listen to it again to make definitive comparisons. But if memory serves, there were some problems with intonation in the soprano part.
In today’s concert, I felt that Maestro Janowski was in complete control of all the complexities and subtleties in Schmitt’s incredible score, and managed to obtain exactly what he wanted.
PLN: Tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you became interested in classical music.
EB: I was involved in music from the age of 7 or so (learning the piano). Even at a young age, I always had an enormous curiosity towards the classical repertoire. Thankfully, I was able to fulfill this curiosity by listening to a lot of music, with a later predilection for opera.
I have never performed as a professional musician, even though I was involved with choral singing for a number of years with concert choirs in the USA and in France. Later, my career evolved in the professional opera world, but on the administrative side.
It has been a longtime dream of mine to be able to sing Psaume XLVII at least once in my life — but to this day it is still a dream!
PLN: How did you first become acquainted with Psalm 47 in particular?
EB: I discovered the Psaume while preparing the music option of the national Baccalaureat in 1979. Every year, the baccalaureate candidates have to present six musical works: the background, the composer, a succinct analysis, etc. Three of them are the candidate’s own choice, and the other three are mandatory.
That year, the Psaume was one of the three assigned pieces. During the study period, I listened to the piece many, many times, and fell deeply in love with it. And I have never missed an opportunity to hear it live.
Except that … those opportunities have presented themselves just twice — once at Radio-France in 1999, and then this 2015 Berlin performance. As soon as I saw the concert date listed in one of your Florent Schmitt blog posts, I hastened to get a ticket, having no idea where I’d be and what I’d be doing — or whether I could even be able to attend the concert six months later. But it turned out all for the best!
PLN: Do you consider Psalm 47 to be one of the more important choral works ever composed? In what ways?
EB: Indeed I do! One reason is that few other choral works have managed to build such a perfect bridge between modern musical language (and orchestration) and the foundation of the choral tradition (more precisely the Bachian and Germanic traditions).
In Psaume XLVII there are some amazing choral effects as well — and quite advanced for their time (1904). These include the rippling waves just after the solo soprano, and the rhythmic violence which presages Stravinsky, to cite just two examples.
PLN: You traveled from Lyon in France to Berlin in Germany just to hear this concert. Based on how the concert went, are you glad you made the journey?
EB: Yes! I’d travel many kilometers to hear this piece live — and this concert fulfilled my fondest expectations. It was the most exhilarating emotion I’ve experienced at a concert in a long time — in short, one of the best concerts of my life. Thinking about it now still gives me goose-bumps.
PLN: To those who may not be familiar with the music of Florent Schmitt, what compositions in addition to Psalm 47 would you recommend that they explore?
EB: La Tragédie de Salomé, of course, for the incredible orchestration. Dionysiaques also, for its rhythmic exploration and complexity, and generally for the incredible way that Schmitt composed for a concert band. The Suite sans esprit de suite is also wonderful for its fantasy and humor.
PLN: Any additional thoughts you like to share about Florent Schmitt and his music?
EB: It is gratifying to see that today, after decades of neglect, Schmitt’s music has gained recognition — at least on recordings. But his absence from the concert stage is absolutely unacceptable. We must urge conductors and programmers to explore his catalogue.
At the very least, the Psaume and Salomé should be part of the repertoire of any serious, professional orchestra and chorus.
Speaking as someone who has also traveled many miles to see and hear the magnificence of Psalm 47 in concert, I can well understand the passion that Eric Butruille feels for this music. We are grateful that he was willing to share that passion with us.
… And for those who would like to download and listen to the Berlin RSO live performance of Psalm 47 for themselves, you can do so via this link.