Mesmerizing singing from Jakub Józef Orliński in Baroque and Polish songs

United StatesUnited States Various: Jakub Józef Orliński (countertenor), Michał Biel (piano). Presented by Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 13.3.2022. (HS)

Jakub Józef Orliński and Michał Biel

Fux – ‘Non t’amo per il ciel’
Purcell – ‘Music for a while’; ‘Fairest Isle’; ‘Cold song’; ‘Strike the viol’; ‘Your awful voice I hear’; ‘If music be the food of love’
Czyż – ‘Pożegnania’; ‘Kochałem Panią’; ‘Na wzgórzach Gruzji’; ‘Ostatni raz’
Karłowicz – ‘Nie płacz nade mną’; ‘Z Erotyków’; ‘Mów do mnie jeszcze’; ‘Śpi w blaskach’; ‘Przed nocą wieczną’; ‘Na spokojnym ciemnym morzu’; ‘W wieczorną cieszę’; ‘Smutną jest dusza moja’; ‘Skąd pierwsze gwiazdy’; ‘Czasem gdy długo na pół sennie marze’; ‘Zaczarowana królewna’
Moniuszko – ‘Łza’; ‘Prząśniczka’
Handel – ‘Amen, Alleluia’ (Antiphon in D minor HWV 269)

Polish art song may not be high on many classical vocalists’ playlists, but when Jakub Józef Orliński is singing, it’s pure magic. The countertenor sprinkled 17 songs from three Polish composers into a recital Sunday at the University of California, Berkeley, contrasting them expertly with the Baroque arias and songs that are already catnip for countertenors.

Not only did the Polish songs hold their own, their late-Romantic styles (written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by composers aiming for lyricism) made a bracing balance against the florid embellishments and steady rhythms of Purcell and Handel.

The 31-year-old Orliński, who recently wowed Metropolitan Opera audiences as Orpheus in Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice, has arrived as a hot ticket in the classical voice world. His 125,000 followers on Instagram revel in clips of him as a professional break dancer as well as his musical efforts. And, judging by the immediate response to the opening bars of his final encore (a Vivaldi aria), the near-capacity audience in 678-seat Hertz Hall Sunday afternoon knew his music well.

His is a unique vocal presence. He uses vibrato sparingly, yet the voice presents as warm and rich, not at all the white sound of many countertenors. He can hit high notes with precision and the piercing intensity of a trumpet, but the glory of this voice is at the low end of his range, which compares well to great mezzo-sopranos in its beauty. His burnished sound wraps around the words, and if there is a break in the voice (i.e., passagio), it’s deftly covered.

All that was evident in the opening aria, ‘Non t’amo per il ciel’, from an oratorio by the Austrian composer Johann Joseph Fux (1660–1741), better known for a treatise on counterpoint than for his music. An example of Orliński’s penchant for digging up finds among lesser-known Baroque music, it was ravishing stuff, showing off the singer’s subtle control of dynamics and tone, without a hint of vibrato.

A Purcell set followed and demonstrated the same positive attributes, especially a feel for dynamics and the voice’s ability to glide effortlessly from softness to the punch of brassy top notes. ‘Cold song’, which seemed to stop time vocally against a slow-paced series of staccato chords in the accompaniment, was reminiscent of ‘Winter’ in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It made especially effective use of his no-vibrato sound, as did ‘Strike the viol’ with its jaunty rhythms and rapid fioritura.

Through all this, the connection between Orliński and pianist Michał Biel, now on the faculty at Juilliard, emerged as another welcome element. Roommates as Juilliard students, they clearly share musical preferences and are on the same page in every song. Biel also brings a range of colors to the piano transcriptions of orchestral accompaniments.

The first set of three Polish songs were by Henryk Czyż (1923–2003), who as a conductor championed Polish contemporary music, particularly Penderecki, whose Polish Requiem he recorded in 1985. The songs, all about farewells, called to mind other composers. The first, ‘Kochałem Panią’, to a lost lover, could have been by Rachmaninoff. ‘Na wzgórzach Gruzji’, to a rippling accompaniment, claimed a right to move on from a lost love, and brought Tchaikovsky to mind. ‘Ostatni raz’, eulogizing a brother, revealed a more distinctive personal style from the composer, and gave Orliński a chance to demonstrate a superbly controlled, barely-a-whisper pianissimo on a line translated as ‘even the poet has faded’.

The first half wrapped up with Purcell’s ‘Your awful voice I hear’ from The Tempest, its jaw-dropping coloratura giving way to a creamily lyric melody before rising to a crisp finish. More Purcell opened the second half, a setting of Henry Hevengham’s poem ‘If music be the food of love’, surprisingly in a minor key, yet it expressed an uplifting idea and blossomed with more impressive coloratura.

A set of 11 songs by Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876–1909), a composer better known for symphonic works, opened a treasure chest of mostly short, to-the-point, insistently lyrical ear-catchers that ranged from the sadness of ‘Nie płacz nade mną’ to the fast-paced spinning song, ‘Czasem gdy długo na pół sennie marze’. Orliński seemed totally in his element singing these compact tunes in his native language, and Biel excelled in shaping the long intros and codas distinctively. The swirling accompaniment to ‘Czasem’, the quiet fluttering of ‘W wieczorną cieszę’ under the voice’s words evoking stillness, and the simple barcarolle-like sway of ‘Śpi w blaskach’ created their own magic.

Two songs from nineteenth-century Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko made less of an impression, but ‘Amen, Alleluia’ by Handel was a sensational conclusion to the program. Deftly paced to show the stateliness of the melody, picking up complexity with adornments and florid flourishes, Orliński created a heart-stopping moment on a sustained final note, sung pianissimo in the bottom of his range. It was both moving and mesmerizing.

For encores, ‘Alla gente a Dio diletta’ from Il Faranoe sommerso by Nicolas Fago started things off with a delicious pastoral, and then came a repeat of Purcell’s bouncy ‘Strike the viol’. They sent everyone home with a juicy ‘Vedro con mio diletto’ from Vivaldi’s Il Giustino.

Harvey Steiman

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