PROMS / In search of the lost chord: Stephen Johnson on the annual organ recital and a Docklands debut

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The Independent Culture
THE ORGAN recital is not usually a spectator sport, and Tuesday's early-evening prom was no exception. The console may be exposed and central, but the player resembles only a tiny blob from most parts of the Albert Hall auditorium. We could at least see that Jacques van Oortmerssen hadn't smuggled in any cribs before his improvisation, though we had to take the programme note's word for it that he had been handed the theme the moment before he was due to begin. Perhaps a Bafta-style last-minute envelope-opening would only have made sense if we could have seen the expression on Van Oortmerssen's face.

The improvisation - on Veni, veni Emmanuel it turned out - had its colourful and resourceful touches, though some of the imitative writing became rut-bound after a while. Van Oortmerssen's pre-composed Fata Morgana was quicker witted, its abrupt ending well timed. Otherwise this was a strangely low-key recital. First came Fanfare by Jaak Lemmens, its title a clear case of overselling; then there was Franck's blandly pleasant A major Fantaisie, and a Prelude and Fugue in B by Saint-Saens - more inventive but featherweight. Then, following Van Oortmerssen's own contributions, came three pieces by Marcel Dupre: two atmospheric Passion meditations, and the first movement of the Symphonie-Passion - relatively impressive, though some way from scintillating. After the Dupre, that overworked old showpiece, Widor's Toccata, was given new, sonorous life, but the contrast with the rest of the programme was so marked that it could have been grafted on from another recital. The audience - large for a six o'clock Prom - evidently welcomed it.

But the welcome given to soprano Janice Watson was more than a few degrees warmer, and, as it turned out, she deserved every decibel of it. Substituting at the last minute for an indisposed Joan Rodgers, she gave an exceptionally fine performance of Britten's Les Illuminations. On the one hand it was full of beautiful, memory-haunting details - including just about the loveliest 'et je danse' (the culminating line of 'Phrase') I can remember. On the other, the interpretation as a whole was so well thought through that it was hard to believe that Watson and conductor Sian Edwards hadn't been working on it for weeks, instead of one frantic session that afternoon.

The strings of the Docklands Sinfonietta, impressively responsive in the Britten, visibly worked hard to bring out the feeling and sonority in Arvo Part's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten - a work in which the simplicity aesthetic really does seem to have produced something original and enduring. But, for all their efforts, the 24-strong string section sounded small and thin in the Albert Hall vastness. Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers overture similarly seemed to lose something of its playful immediacy. But the Docklands Sinfonietta has made big advances, and this showed as much in the two works in the second half as in the Britten. Dallapiccola's Piccola musica notturna - a strikingly imaginative choice - was suitably moody, a true nocturne with something of the feel of a De Chirico dreamscape. Then came Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. From the start it sounded well rehearsed; by the finale the determination had been converted into gripping energy.