The dashing brilliance and stylish artistry of Jakub Józef Orliński at Wigmore Hall

There is a very good reason why Jakub Józef Orliński is such an audience draw today.  Just a few lines into the first song, Johann Joseph Fux’s ‘Non t’amo per il ciel’ from Il fonte della salute aperto dalla grazia nel Calvario there were white-hot flickers of dopamine already mushrooming through you.  The emotional voltage here was very high indeed.

So many recitals open on a slow burn, in an embryonic way, but this is not the Orliński approach.  There was something almost beguilingly outrageous about this first song’s sheer beauty, and the confident nobility of the voice which immediately drew you into its magic.  It was never a question of just the voice, however.  Michal Biel’s sensitive, ochre-tinged playing was like a beautifully varnished oak against the purity of the text.  Orliński could be said to be impatient to establish the link between the artist and his audience and there is a danger to this.  But what I also found highly unusual with this singer is not just how well it works, but how it goes even further than that.  There is a feeling of individual communion with Orliński.  

I sometimes find the world of Purcell and Handel more difficult to navigate than most.  In less remarkable singers, the high degree of repetition can be colourless.  Orliński is blessed with a tonal range and an ear for shading which showers detail onto his phrasing.  John Dryden’s text for the Purcell song Incidental music for Oedipus, King of Thebes is, in my view, typical of the poet’s work and Purcell would have been better served by turning to almost anything that Sophocles wrote. Nevertheless, Orliński’s skill at making the lines “Till the snakes drop from her head/And the whip from out her hands” sound so visual, almost like a photograph, was impressive. ‘Fairest Isle’, from Dryden’s text for King Arthur, I suppose needs to meet a kind of dual criteria. Is it stately enough and does it have a certain buoyancy and meter (the two not necessarily being incompatible)?  Orliński probably wouldn’t have been able to walk the tightrope as skilfully as he did without the not inconsiderable playing of Michal Biel who provided both a degree of weight and momentum.

‘Siam prossimi al porto’ from Handel’s Rinaldo is somewhat elegiac, perhaps in keeping with the general tone of this recital which largely held back on countertenor virtuosity.  This was a Eustazio which seemed to ebb ashore, almost broken-hearted.  A very different piece of Handel closed the recital, Amen et Alleluia, the Ninth in D minor HWV269.  Despite all of this aria’s virtuosity, HWV269 is the most plaintive of the set, perhaps closer to the Messiah.  Orliński’s wonderful way of melding a beautifully phrased slowness with leaping runs made it both contemplative and dramatic – even if faith was entirely meant to be stripped from it.

The revelations, however, were the nineteenth century Polish songs transcribed for countertenor, the first time Orliński has sung any of these in a concert.  Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, a composer with a small output, but a relatively well-recorded one, wrote some two dozen songs, most of them in a single year, 1896.  Karlowicz’s early death – at the age of 32 in a skiing accident – is a clear musical tragedy once you hear these songs, especially when they are sung from the perspective of a great countertenor.  Karlowicz’s sound world owes much to Chopin – you will often hear reflections of the Nocturnes in these songs.  The sweeping glow of Romanticism, with a Tristanesque tragedy never quite far away, can sometimes be a dominant thread through them.  They almost pre-empt Rachmaninoff in places, too.  But the guiding principle of these songs, so brief like love itself, is the frequent sorrow and melancholy of love.  ‘The Enchanted Princess’ is of promised freedom ultimately defeated, of a knight vanquished by fate and turned to stone.  ‘Before Eternal Night’ is an elegy about hearing a lover’s voice in the hour of death.  The unremitting bleakness of these songs – or rather the poetry on which they are based – could be overwhelming were it not for the extraordinarily powerful music which Karlowicz composes.

Why were these songs such a revelation when sung by a countertenor?  In part it’s because they sit more comfortably with the piano.  Orliński has a pretty formidable lower reach which has not just power but breadth – the perfect voice for these songs.  Michal Biel needed to make no adjustment to his pedalling or keyboard playing to accompany Orliński – even during the most blisteringly powerful passages.  The language too, so heavy on consonants, is more suited to the countertenor with the spread of his range.  And here Orliński’s diction was remarkable, even given his Polish nativeness.  The crispness, clarity and articulacy of his singing was magnificent; certainly not a given. The Stanislaw Moniuszko song Przaśniczka (The loom), with its “Spin, spin the spindle/Twist, twist the thread” was a tour de force of virtuosity, astonishing both for Orliński’s ability to navigate the complexity of the text, as well as the rhythm and pace of it.  Never once did you come away from hearing Orliński singing these Polish songs, or Biel masterfully playing them, and feel that either of them was entirely lacking control of their composer’s scoring or their own interpretations of them.  They were absolutely inside this music.  A forthcoming recording (I believe in January 2022) can’t come soon enough.

Jakub Józef Orliński cuts something of a dashing figure on stage. It wouldn’t work for all (even many) artists, but his swaggering style, so reminiscent of the Shakespearean or baroque courtesan, is entirely a part of his ‘Art of Singing’.  It’s quite possible it just has to be like that.  There’s such wonderful flexibility to everything he does – a flexibility which perhaps only a countertenor break-dancer has. There is, too, a very clear and obvious symbiosis between singer and pianist. As this recital showed, Orliński and Biel make vibrant and exciting music, but they make great art from it, too.

Jakub Józef Orliński’s new CD, Anima Aeterna, is released on Erato on 29th October.

Marc Bridle

Jakub Józef Orliński (countertenor), Michal Biel (piano)

Fux – ‘Non t’amo per il ciel’ (Il fonte della salute aperto dalla grazia nel Calvario); Purcell – ‘Music for a while’ (Incidental music for Oedipus, King of Thebes Z583), ‘Fairest Isle’ (King Arthur Z628); Jan Dismas Zelenka – ‘Fiat pax’ from Laetatus sum’; Purcell – ‘Welcome to all the pleasures’ (Ode for St Cecilia’s Day Z339), ‘Here the Deities approve’; Francisco António de Almeida – ‘La Giuditta’, ‘Giusto Dio’; Purcell – ‘Your awful voice I hear’ (The Tempest Z631); Handel – ‘Siam prossimi al porto’ (Rinaldo HWV7); Karłowicz – ‘Nie płacz nade mną’ Op.3 No.7, ‘Z erotyków’ Op.3 No.2, ‘Na spokojnym, ciemnym morzu’ Op.3 No.4, ‘Mów do mnie jeszcze’ Op.3 No.1, ‘Przed nocą wieczną’ Op.3 No.6, ‘W wieczorną ciszę’ Op.3 No.8, ‘Skad pierwsze gwiazdy’ Op.1 No.2, ‘Czasem gdy długo na pół sennie marze’, ‘Zaczarowana królewna’ Op.3 No.10; Luca Antonio Predieri – ‘Dovrian quest’occhi piangere’ (Scipione il giovane); Moniuszko ‘Łza’, ‘Prząśniczka; Handel – ‘Amen, Alleluia in D minor’ HWV269.

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 8th October 2021.

ABOVE: Jakub Józef Orliński (c) Kamil Szkopik