David Enlow at the Schoenstein pipe organ in St James Episcopal Church, July 15, 2009, in New York (credit: Ray Stubblebine)

Organist David Enlow celebrates César Franck with recital at New York’s Church of the Ascension

November 17, 2022
Church of the Ascension
New York, NY – USA
David Enlow, organ.

César FRANCK: “Pièce Héroïque” from Trois Pièces
César FRANCK: Grande Pièce Symphonique
César FRANCK: Prière
César FRANCK: “Final” from Six Pièces
César FRANCK: “Cantabile” from Trois Pièces
César FRANCK: Choral en la-mineur (Choral in A Minor)

Adam Sherkin | 21 NOV 2022

What a rare and worthy occasion organist David Enlow’s recent celebratory recital of César Franck at 200 proved to be. Already acclaimed for his 2012 recording of the complete organ works by Franck, Enlow unfurled a glorious array of six pieces by the French master in New York on the singular Manton Memorial Organ at Church of the Ascension, built by Pascal Quoirin of St. Didier, France. Exceptionally, with 6183 pipes, 95 stops, 111 ranks, two consoles, and seven keyboards, it is the largest French organ constructed anywhere in almost 50 years and the very first French-built pipe organ installed in New York City.

Many organists believe it essential to celebrate César Franck and his contribution to the repertoire on the 200th anniversary of his birth. Franck made his mark on the organ world of France and beyond, making his “spiritual home…at the keys of the magnificent organ of Ste-Clotilde.”

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Enlow finds himself at the center stage of this celebration, particularly in the United States, where he has spent much of his career championing the works of Franck. Through both the well-worn and obscure corners of the catalog, Enlow proclaims that appreciating “the soul of Franck…is to hear his organ music.” Indeed, Franck elevated the organ repertory and its expressive potential to symphonic heights, in part thanks to contemporaneous innovations from organ builders in his native land. He began the so-called “French Symphonic Organ” school, which continues to yield proponents to this very day.

And Enlow is a tireless devotee to this, the King of Instruments. He directs us gently to a world beneath our very ears, which he believes we ought to appreciate better. Encompassing a refined soundscape of older French sensibilities, he urges us to open our hearts to Franck’s organ music, as we often do with this composer’s popular instrumental works (such as the violin sonata and “Panis Angelicus”) and acknowledge this central facet of the French composer’s art via our own deeper, modern engagement with it.

Closeup of the main console, Manton Memorial Organ at Church of the Ascension. (credit: Caleb Jaster)

Closeup of the main console, Manton Memorial Organ at Church of the Ascension. (credit: Caleb Jaster)

Despite an unassuming musical start to Thursday night’s recital, a tangible sense of occasion suffused the air. Undoubtedly, ardent aficionados of the organ were in attendance. Still, there were also novice listeners present for novelty of a kind, be it the all-Franck program or to hear the Manton Memorial Organ itself. Enlow welcomed us wholesomely from the start and, without speaking a word, sat down to build an evening’s sonic canvas at which to marvel, note by note, chord by chord, emanating from veteran hands, ears, and pedals of uncommon musicality. His own program notes for the evening’s musical fare proved helpful: they enhanced the already impressive testament that was Enlow’s performance.

The first work, the Pièce héroïque was an ideal opener, showcasing various attributes of this beautiful instrument with its dazzling colors and unique finesse of timbre. César Franck’s symphonic use of the organ proved an acknowledgment – a conceit even – that pervaded the evening. As mentioned, Enlow has endeavored to proclaim the organ’s attainment as a veritable symphonic vehicle in the pen of Franck. Still, it was already apparent, even from this first piece of the evening, that Franck’s contribution remains indisputable. Our ears relished the earnest melodic gesture and etched shadings; measure by measure, his raison d’être – the very impetus for Franck’s creative drive – came into focus.

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This palette seemed to vividly capture Enlow’s imagination, exhibiting his command of a wide range of sonority. Such expertise made up for shortcomings in the composition itself (arguably not quite one of Franck’s best). But what a warmup! Enlow then launched into the Grand Pièce Symphonique, a sprawling 25-minute work that boasts thrilling counterpoint and originality of melody. Playing almost the entirety of this recital from memory, Enlow laid out the program’s grand design with much skill. He captured “the range and ease of expression made possible by dynamic control enclosures and stop controls” on the Manton organ, managing the chiseling of texture and molding of harmonic layers with aplomb.

Certain tempi and pacing relationships exist in this varied music, requiring a keen ear and deft set of hands (and feet!) At times, however, the overall rhythmic pulse was hindered, and the musical narrative dipped off course. Nevertheless, by the conclusion of this Grand Pièce, Enlow had the audience convinced and enthused, now fully aboard the journey he was helming.

Empty sanctuary of Church of the Ascension, with console in position for David Enlow's recital. (credit: Caleb Jaster)

Empty sanctuary of Church of the Ascension, with console in position for David Enlow’s recital. (credit: Caleb Jaster)

The meandering Prière, Op. 20, provided an apt postlude to the Grand Pièce Symphonique. This lesser-known music is not without its flaws but Enlow divined all he could, drawing unusual stops to augment what he noted as a demanding piece of considerable reach and range, requiring large hands. Without intermission (or even leaving the Chancel at all), Enlow continued with the forthright Finale, Op. 21. It was satisfying to hear Op. 21 in succession to Op. 20, and Enlow’s capering amongst such bright musical meadows, filled with jolly rhythmic romps, brought smiles to the attendance. Thanks to the tradition of popular French improvisation at the organ (à la Lefébure-Wély, to whom this piece is dedicated), tunes and materials here are perfectly suited to the instrument. The score is filled with humor – even irony – and this lighter side was not lost on Thursday night’s audience: Enlow communicated the music’s unexpected nature with insight and virtuosity, hinting at a startling tangent of French composers who flourished after Franck, including Camille Saint-Saëns and Francis Poulenc.

With the penultimate Cantabile, Enlow played up a popular bent while highlighting his own penchant for canonic textures. In his notes, Enlow likens the lyricism of this Cantabile to that of the composer’s Violin Sonata, coupled, however, with the power of reed stops. A pleasant lulling accompaniment pattern was established, peppered with judicious use of such rarer stops. Overall, this shift in tonal shading was an expert stroke of programming, offering a preamble to the last item on the program, the Choral in A minor.

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Dubbed “a perfect storm,” this is a monumental work in its form and finality. In the last great composition of Franck’s life output, Enlow brought all of his dexterous assets to bear, with an especially romantic interpretive approach he insists upon when considering the organ works of Franck. He is compelling in this insistence and accentuates the masterful tune “at the heart” of the third choral section. Enlow has rated it amongst Franck’s best melodies and delivered its poignancy with acumen and style. Even his physical gestures embodied the spacious, awesome, final measures of this music; “the apotheosis of Franck at the close of his great life in music” was apparent. One couldn’t help but be moved by and grateful to David Enlow and this glorious organ for conveying such musical passion and expertise carried by the wings of César Franck. Enlow cast an artful spell from his inspired console, originating in centuries bygone, once burning bright at the organ in Ste-Clotilde. And on a cold November night in 2022, that creative torch passed fairly through New York pews, now burning anew. 

A note about the Manton Memorial Organ

Dr. Dennis Keene was instrumental in bringing about the construction of the organ at Church of the Ascension. It was commissioned in memory of Sir Edwin Manton and Lady Manton. Both Dr. Keene and the honorary committee (Nancy D. Hoppin and Clémence Boissinnas) should be thanked for hosting David Enlow on November 17th and for providing such an exemplary platform.
“The organ’s remarkable sound qualities impress both the novice and experienced listener, with an extraordinary dynamic range from ethereal and delicate to powerful and profound. The organ has a coloristic palate that expresses the clarity of Baroque masterworks, the virtually infinite nuance of 19th and 20th Century French masters, and offers the versatility demanded by the works of today and the future.” For further information, please visit: ascensionnyc.org/worship/manton-organ  ~A.S.

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Adam Sherkin

Adam Sherkin is a composer, pianist, and music journalist. A native of Toronto, Sherkin has performed at significant venues throughout Canada, the United States and Britain, enjoying recent premieres of his works in the Netherlands and Vietnam.

photo credit: Anka Czudec