Wow! Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński makes stunning Spivey debut

The first performance of Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński's highly anticipated North American tour took place at Spivey Hall.

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The first performance of Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński's highly anticipated North American tour took place at Spivey Hall.

Making his Spivey Hall debut Sunday afternoon, Jakub Józef Orliński seemed to inhabit two different mindsets. The star Polish countertenor, with Polish pianist Michał Biel, offered a program of Baroque treasures contrasted by Romantic art songs from Poland, and the differences were stark — until the encores resolved any lingering doubts.

In many ways, you could tell Spivey was the first concert of their highly anticipated North American tour, which was breathlessly previewed in Friday’s New York Times. In music and logistics, they still have a few things to sort out.

As the duo strode on stage, Orliński held a black music folder in his hands but didn’t know what to do with it, so he set it down on the floor, leaning against a piano leg. Pianist Biel whispered something to the singer; the audience chuckled at the awkwardness; playfully, with a boyish grin, Orliński snatched it up and placed it in the obvious location, on the piano’s music shelf.

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Polish pianist Michał Biel accompanied countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński at Spivey Hall.

Credit: Courtesy of Spivey Hall

Polish pianist Michał Biel accompanied countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński at Spivey Hall.

Credit: Courtesy of Spivey Hall

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Polish pianist Michał Biel accompanied countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński at Spivey Hall.

Credit: Courtesy of Spivey Hall

Credit: Courtesy of Spivey Hall

Then they launched into a lovely aria by Johann Joseph Fux, from 1716, “Non t’amo per il ciel” (“I love you not for heaven”), and for a few minutes I thought surely Orliński has the most compelling, most otherworldly beautiful voice on the planet. All at once pure and angelic, luminous and silvery, earthy and dark — this is what all the fuss is about.

His instrument at first seemed to display a kaleidoscope of colors, but across the evening it became apparent that his phrasing is what’s so varied, with a spectrum of expressions and approaches to each line. Like the very best singers, he sings the words in the shape of the music, rather than singing notes with syllables and pronunciation as an afterthought. And unlike many capable countertenors on the scene, there’s no “hoot” in Orliński’s tone. What he produces is natural and full and betrays no effort.

This combination was deeply satisfying in a set of theater songs by Henry Purcell, mostly composed in the 1690s and set to texts by poet John Dryden. In the song “Music for a while,” for the play Oedipus, a line like “From their eternal bands, Till the snakes drop from her head . . .” allowed Orliński to shape the character, sputtering the repeated word “drop” with focus and intensity, from a whispering pianissimo to a roaring forte. In the crystalline warmth of Spivey’s acoustic, it gave the listener shivers.

Throughout, pianist Biel was comfortable in the accompanying role, fully supportive. And he was especially clever in his Purcell realizations, reimagining a variety of ancient instrumental sounds for the nine-foot Steinway.

Orliński finally picked up that folder for three settings of Pushkin poems, sung in Polish, by Henryk Czyż. These 1948 songs, translated as “Farewells,” evoked the music of the era, with echoes of Rachmaninoff and a Hollywood noir atmosphere. Unlike the Purcell, which is so spare on the page and requires a careful, deluxe interpretation to make them “speak,” the three Czyż songs were more about long sustained lines and robust lyricism.

Paradoxically, you could imagine that a bland crooner, someone with pipes but less personality, might have the full measure of these songs. It felt like Orliński hadn’t made them his own. (Holding the sheet music in his hands suggests he hadn’t fully memorized them, either.)

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Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński made his Spivey Hall debut March 6.

Credit: Courtesy of Spivey Hall

Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński made his Spivey Hall debut March 6.

Credit: Courtesy of Spivey Hall

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Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński made his Spivey Hall debut March 6.

Credit: Courtesy of Spivey Hall

Credit: Courtesy of Spivey Hall

Returning to 1690s Purcell, the differences were again glaring. For the complementing arias “Your awful voice I hear” (music to accompany “The Tempest”), and “If music be the food of love,” Orliński was in his extraordinary element. In the former, on the words “Your stormy rage give o’er,” he delivered rapid-fire coloratura, blazing and silvery, in full fury. In those moments he was so intense it was a little scary to hear. The latter song, slower and warmer, ends with the couplet “Sure I must perish by your charms / Unless you save me in your arms,” sung with elegance and nuance. For all the radiant beauty of his voice, it was his emotional connection with the text that was so wonderfully moving.

The bulk of the concert’s second half was taken up by 19th-century songs by Mieczysław Karłowicz, which the countertenor explained are well known in Poland: Every voice student sings them. These 11 short songs hold over-the-top emotions, backed by bold and broadly romantic piano accompaniments, and will be part of an all-Polish CD to be released later this spring. The duo delivered them carefully, often gorgeously, but sometimes lacking in depth (and with the black folder open in his hands). In almost every case the piano did much of the heavy lifting.

Each little song created its own world, from ghostly and distant (“On a calm, dark sea”) to the morbid passions of unrequited love (“My Soul is sad”) to a pirouetting fairytale with a dark ending (“The enchanted princess”). In this reading, these songs weren’t out of Orliński’s comfort zone but, as in the Czyż set — despite the comfort in his native tongue — he didn’t quite navigate his own way within them.

A glorious church antiphon “Alleluja, Amen” by George Frideric Handel — a composer in whose music Orliński is superlative — closed the formal program. The countertenor ran those two words through almost five minutes of acrobatics and caressing tenderness, with the soft final “Amen” an extraordinary moment, perhaps the most beautiful singing of the afternoon.

Then came the encores, oh boy, three of them. As mentioned, the encores gave us a fascinating glimpse into the singer. First was an obscure Italian song by one Francesco Nicola Fago, his “Alla gente e Dio diletta” (“To the people and God beloved”), which opened Orliński’s debut CD back in 2018. Pure pleasure.

Then another Karłowicz song, one we hadn’t heard earlier. This time, singing for fun, it was playful and brilliant. He made delightfully expressive faces and swayed to the music — treating the song like he’d internalized it and could stretch and shape as he pleased. This is what was missing from the student-exercise set!

Finally, they repeated Purcell’s “Strike the Viol,” this time exploding with original ornamentation, overflowing with character. I scribbled a summary in my program book: “Wow.”

Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.


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