Heiner Goebbels: A House of Call review – fascinating work, mesmerisingly performed | Classical music

First performed last year, Heiner Goebbels’s “phonographic collection from my imaginary notebook” is his first major orchestral work since the suite Surrogate Cities in 1994. He describes it as a cycle of invocations, prayers, poems and songs for a large orchestra, but, as always with Goebbels, it’s not as straightforward as that. The title comes from a line in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; in early 19th-century England, a “house of call” was a public space in which itinerant artisans could put their skills up for hire, and the 100-minute score creates a space in which recorded voices that Goebbels has sourced from wax cylinders, news reports and ethnographic sources can be given a political or historical context and a musical response.

Heiner Goebbels: A House of Call album cover

Among the voices and texts referenced here are Samuel Beckett and Heiner Müller, the Persian Sufi poet Rumi and the Armenian composer and folk-song collector Komitas; there are field recordings from Amazonia and Namibia and from Georgian prisoners during the first world war, and the music is equally diverse. The 15 movements of A House of Call, grouped into four parts, include moments of pounding jazz-rock (perhaps a glance back to the 1980s, when Goebbels was a member of the group Cassiber), through edgy rhythmic dislocations straight out of Stravinsky to disintegrating textures on the edges of music. But there are moments of extraordinary delicacy too, when just a solo instrument underpins a chant or a distant choir, as in the second part, Grain de la Voix (a title borrowed from Roland Barthes), built around recordings from the Caucasus.

A quote from Beckett, “When words gone”, provides the title of the final section, which is built around spells and incantations. Goebbels’ use of the orchestra, which includes electric guitar, accordion and dulcimer, is at its most imaginative here; the ending, for chanting voices alone, is mesmerising. Even though some of the subtle interplay between the recorded voices and the live instruments is inevitably lost on disc (a concert performance of A House of Call is scheduled for London next spring) it is still a fascinating, strikingly beautiful work.

This week’s other pick

In 2013, while he was artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale, Goebbels directed the first ever European staging of Harry Partch’s music-theatre piece Delusion of the Fury, with the ensemble MusikFabrik. It was brought to the Edinburgh international festival the following year. A set of special instruments had to be made to play Partch’s microtonal score, which the members of MusikFabrik had to master, and now a recording of their performance has appeared on Wergo. Dramatically the piece is a fusion of a Japanese Noh play with a west African legend, delivered as part incantation, part declamation, with a percussive score of glinting, pulsing rhythms and eruptive toccatas. It may not be as beguiling on disc as it was in the theatre, but it is still an utterly original experience.

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