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Psalm 23, Op 14

First line:
Ein Psalm Davids. Der Herr ist mein Hirte
author of text
Psalm 23

Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) is in a fantasy style, painting a musical picture to match the echoes of the pastoral mode of this psalm text where God is likened to a shepherd. About one half of the Book of Psalms in the Bible was written by (King) David who was once a shepherd himself. In the Hebrew headings for many of the psalms, there are the inscriptions: ‘A Psalm of David’ and ‘To the Choirmaster’. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the words of Psalms are a ready resource for composers. Think of it as a very, very old book of lyrics. Arguably, Psalm 23 is the best-known in the whole collection of 150 psalms and maybe its popularity is because it is not so much a prayer asking God for gifts or graces, but rather it expresses contentment and trust in what the Lord has provided on earth and has promised for the future. Zemlinsky paints a picture in music with some of the optimism of Gustav Mahler’s choral works and a little of the religious fervour of his teacher, Anton Bruckner. There is also a forward-looking use of chromatic harmony which sounds almost like an introduction to the composer Arnold Schoenberg. There is an immediacy to his way of transforming imagined, pastoral scenes into colourful melody and harmony which is direct and appealing. Some of the influences in his style are easily traced in Zemlinsky’s own life.

Born in Vienna with a mixture of Catholic, Muslim and Jewish cultures, his three psalm-settings make up almost all of his sacred music compositions. He intended to marry Anna Schindler had Gustav Mahler not got there first but, despite this domestic upset, Mahler was still chosen to conduct the premiere of Zemlinsky’s Opera, Es war einmal (Once upon a time) and it might have been Mahler’s music which was the inspiration for Alexander’s sweeping phrases and arching climaxes. Yet, alongside his conventional harmony in the mould of Wagner and Brahms, it is the ground-shifting chromaticism which points us to another family connection: Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde in 1901, and 1907 was the year of both the composition of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden and the marriage of Zemlinsky to Ida Guttman. After formative years immersed in the music of the Jewish faith, Zemlinsky had converted to Protestantism in 1899, the same year that he took up the position of Kappelmeister at Vienna’s Carltheater. Another similar post followed in 1906 at the Vienna Volksoper so this creative burst of choral works is perhaps not entirely surprising and his three psalm-settings rank among his finest works.

The use of the oboe in the orchestral introduction of Psalm 23 is perhaps an obvious choice, since this instrument has been used since the Baroque period to suggest the countryside as depicted in the words of this psalm. The vocal lines retain a certain folksong simplicity and the use of mainly higher voices lends an angelic feel to the mood. The harmonic language becomes more chromatic and sensuous as the psalm’s valley of death approaches and rustic spice is added to the sumptuous instrumentation, with glockenspiel, harp, piccolo and cymbals emphasizing the rather high-lying world of the shepherd, suggesting those instruments (timbrel, pipe, harp etc.) which feature so often in the Book of Psalms. For those who know the sound of the bridge passage before the Chorus Mysticus of Mahler’s Symphony No 8, there are little hints of this sound-world in Zemlinsky’s Psalm 23. The two works were premiered in the same year and it is worth recalling the esteem in which Zemlinsky held Gustav Mahler.

from notes by Greg Murray © 2018


Bernstein, Stravinsky & Schoenberg: Symphonic Psalms & Prayers
Studio Master: SIGCD492Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track 8 on SIGCD492 [10'53] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD492 track 8

Recording date
8 July 2017
Recording venue
BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Stephen Johns
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch & George Collins
Hyperion usage
  1. Hyperion sampler - February 2018 (HYP201802)
    Disc 1 Track 13
    Release date: February 2018
    Download-only sampler
  2. Bernstein, Stravinsky & Schoenberg: Symphonic Psalms & Prayers (SIGCD492)
    Disc 1 Track 8
    Release date: February 2018
    Download only
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