Sorting the men from the boys

Galileo | Royal Festival Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

When it comes to sorting the last millennium's men from its boys, few stack up as impressively as Galileo, a prototypical scientific genius whose work was not recognised by the Vatican until 1993 - 351 years after his death. It was therefore hardly surprising that this pioneer of the refracting telescope should serve as the subject of an hour-long millennium celebration for bass-baritone, chorus, orchestra and "electronics".

When it comes to sorting the last millennium's men from its boys, few stack up as impressively as Galileo, a prototypical scientific genius whose work was not recognised by the Vatican until 1993 - 351 years after his death. It was therefore hardly surprising that this pioneer of the refracting telescope should serve as the subject of an hour-long millennium celebration for bass-baritone, chorus, orchestra and "electronics".

Saturday night's Royal Festival Hall presentation of Edwin Roxburgh's Galileo by Matthew Hargreaves, the Royal Choral Society and the London Festival Orchestra under Ross Pople was nothing if not enthusiastic, and there were episodes - one in particular for oboe and strings - that were genuinely haunting. Liverpool-born Roxburgh is something of a musical polymath, having studied with Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music, played principal oboe at Sadler's Wells Opera, founded the Twentieth Century Ensemble of London, and conducted his own Clarinet Concerto at the Three Choirs Festival.

Galileo is especially strong on atmosphere, opening as it does among eerie high percussion, almost Varÿse-like in its sense of space, and expressing unshielded outrage at its subject's many senseless tribulations. Roxburgh himself provides the text for the opening sequence, with Shakespeare, Donne following his trail and a sequence of ancient cadences (played softly by the strings) blending in with the rest of the texture.

At one point, a lone trumpeter (Anthony Aarons on this occasion) plays Vittoria's "O vos omnes", backed by a bunch of kids on drums. And it was again the children (from ADT College and the London Nautical School) whose pooled resources provided the computer-originated sounds that underpin Galileo's second movement. Pople stood down from the rostrum while lengthy sequences were cued from within the stalls, strange audio mutations that ranged from dark grumblings to what sounded like celestial snoring. My only complaint was that it all went on rather too long, a reaction that was evidently shared by those members of the audience who decided to leave before the end.

Children's and women's voices merged for Galileo's last section, where Roxburgh's influences almost certainly included Alban Berg. The orchestra is invariably kept busy - climaxes erupt with volcanic force - and the sum effect is of a meaty collaborative effort that could quite easily find an appreciative public.

Not quite as appreciative perhaps as for the work that followed, but then Holst's The Planets is one of the indisputable masterpieces of the past hundred years. Pople's performance was worthy, with battling timpani at the end of Mars and a well-balanced off-stage chorus for Neptune. Venus wasn't helped by the baby crying in her midst (the strings were a little on the thin side) and Jupiter tended to plod.

But, viewed overall, it wasn't half bad, and more than good enough to remind us of Holst's astonishing musical imagination.

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