The Wigmore Hall artistry of Jakub Józef Orlínski and Michał Biel was of peerless quality and equality

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Fux, Purcell, Czyż, Karłowicz, Moniuszko, Handel: Jakub Józef Orliński (countertenor), Michał Biel (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 1.5.2022. (MBr)

Jakub Józef Orliński (countertenor) and Michał Biel (piano) © Barbara Aumüller

Johann Joseph 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 Z538); ‘Fairest Isle’, ‘Cold Song’ (King Arthur Z628); ‘Strike the viol, touch the lute’ (Come ye sons of art, away Z323); ‘Your awful voice I hear’ (The Tempest Z631); ‘If music be the food of love’ Z379
Henryk Czyż – (Pożegnania) ‘Kochałem Panią’; ‘Na wzgórzach Gruzji’; ‘Ostatni raz’
Mieczysław Karłowicz – ‘Nie płacz nade mna’ Op.3 No.7; ‘Z erotyków’ Op.3 No.2; ‘Mów do mnie jeszcze’ Op.3 No.1; ‘Śpi w blaskach nocy’ Op.3 No.5; ‘Przed noca wieczna’ Op.3 No.6; ‘Na spokojnym, cimnym morzu’ Op.3 No.4; ‘W wieczorna cisze’ Op.3 No.8; ‘Smutna jest dusza moja’ Op1. No.6; ‘Skad pierwsze gwiazdy’ Op1. No.2; ‘Czasem gdy długo na pół sennie marze’; ‘Zaczarowana królewna’ Op.3 Nr.10
Stanisław Moniuszko – ‘Łza’; ‘Przaśniczka’
Handel – ‘Amen, Alleluia’ in D minor HWV269

A considerable amount of this recital seemed familiar. And indeed it was because I had reviewed Jakub Józef Orlínski at the Wigmore Hall in October last year when he had sung an almost identical program. It was then that he first introduced Polish song into his recital; in this one it had a more practical purpose because it was to coincide with the release of his new CD, Farewells, devoted entirely to the music of his home country.

Orlínski, and his pianist, Michał Biel, have one of the most symbiotic and vibrant of stage partnerships. It was evident over six months ago; and it was amply on show at this recital. They share the same nationality, a not unimportant asset in chamber music or song recitals. But more than that, they seem able to mirror each other’s tone and inflections; there is a balance in their artistry where you aren’t overly focused on just the singer. So often in song the piano part can become obfuscated, it can escape notice. Biel’s gift is that his art is exactly that; as vivid as an impressionist painting.

Orlínski begins his recitals with such freshness you often think he has been on stage for a good half-an-hour. Johann Joseph Fux’s ‘Non t’amo per il ciel’ from Il fonte della salute aperto dalla grazia nel Calvario brought out a princely nobility in Orlínski but he also attached something else to it – a fiery dramaticism that seemed to be a response from the keyboard rather than a dominance over it. What had been noticeable in October had been that willingness to communicate with his audience – and it was here again. He is quick to draw you in. The problem, of course, is that once you have done that you can’t let them go (at least until the interval) and it is a challenge which both Orlínski and Biel managed by some very careful song placement.

Purcell’s Incidental music for Oedipus, King of Thebes – written by Dryden, and dry as dust – always needs an imaginative mind to turn these words into something genuinely musical. The diction is, of course, exquisite, although one was aware this time of it being slightly more accented than before – certainly not an issue when he was able to bring such virtuosity to what he sang. In ‘Cold Song’, from King Arthur, one forgot almost everything to do with the text because it was the metric battle going on between Orlínski and Biel at the keyboard that proved to be so thrilling: the drama, the momentum – they risked walking a tightrope but were never in danger of losing balance.

The first Polish songs of the evening came from Henryk Czyż. A champion of Penderecki, it is his ‘Pushkin’ songs, Pożegnania from which Orlínski takes the title of his new CD – Farewells. These three songs could not exactly be said to talk of love in the present tense; they are very much sorrowful, dark and full of yearning. These were not in his previous recital and they sounded remarkably fresh and different in the countertenor form, much as some of his Karłowicz songs had in October and would do so again here. Polish, more so than Russian, can sometimes sound more concrete in tone to my ears but Orlínski made lightwork of the consonantal flow of the texts so there was sufficient space to embrace the soulfulness of this music.

Almost the entire second half was devoted to Mieczysław Karłowicz. Killed in an avalanche at 32, like Wolf his output is small. There are more than two-dozen songs, so what we were given in this recital, minus three items as advertised, was an extensive part of this. All of his songs come from the period when he was living in Berlin (1896). If there is one thing that is noticeable about Karłowicz’s songs it is the richness and dramatic scale of the piano writing. Piano chords are extensive, but more than this they are almost Romantic in tone as if taken from early Rachmaninoff. It is something which Biel impressively drew on; there was a powerful scale to his playing which sat naturally with the vocal lyricism that Orlínski brought to many of them.

I thought when I heard these songs in October there was an element of the ‘Tristanesque’ to them – and there is tragedy, a sense of fate, these songs pre-empting Karłowicz’s tone poems. Not all of the Polish texts had a perfect symmetry; those that did, like Jan Iwański’s ‘Nie Płacz nade mna’ were wonderfully polished and done with a singularity of expression. ‘Śpi w blaskach nocy’ from Maria Konopnicka, after Heinrich Heine were radiant even if it spoke of the despair of cities that will forever be destroyed and love that will never be returned. Karłowicz’s world is one of burden, of tears, of futility, of sorrow and of emptiness. Even if they speak of radiance and brightness and the cascading immortality of hope it is artificial. Orlínski was able to stride both these Karłowiczian themes, his countertenor range from the bleakness and darkness of his lower range to the hopefulness and sweeping promise of his upper range did establish a duality of these two worlds. I am not sure all countertenors manage this, and neither is it something these songs benefit from when sung by a soprano. This was most clearly heard in the songs by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, who formed the majority of those selected for the Karłowicz section of the recital.

When we turned to Stanisław Moniuszko’s wonderfully virtuosic ‘Przaśniczka’, based on a text by Jan Czeczot, with its rhythmically thrilling “Kręć się, kreć się, wrezeciono/Wić się tobie wić!” the pace and drive of it found Orlínski and Biel in a kind of virtuosic unison. It was crisp, articulate – the piano through the pedalling and dextrous keyboard work as synchronised as a well-oiled turbine. This is partly what makes this partnership so special. That remarkable ability of two artists to understand each other and get inside the music.

There was much in this recital that was memorable. As always with Jakub Józef Orlínski and Michał Biel the artistry is – and was here – one of peerless quality – and equality. This often felt less than a recital, and rather more an evening given by two artists just making great music together.

Marc Bridle

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