On the internet, especially from his Youtube and album clips, Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński comes across as a pretty flamboyant character, with his breakdancing and physical appeal. So, hearing him for the first time at Wigmore Hall with Il pomo d’oro, I was actually quite surprised at his serious demeanour on stage (OK, his green designer suit was flamboyant). Perhaps he was on his best behaviour because of the venue (initially he seemed slightly baffled at the polite Wigmore audience who didn’t clap after every aria!), but he treated us to a varied programme of rare Baroque repertoire, mainly taken from his recently released disc “Facce d’amore”.

Jakub Józef Orliński © Jiyang Chen
Jakub Józef Orliński
© Jiyang Chen

Recently there has been a vogue for countertenors with a soprano range with the emergence of Philippe Jaroussky, Max Emanuel Cenčić, Franco Fagioli and Valer Sabadus. However, Orliński bucks the trend for he is an alto countertenor with an unusually rich low register (his natural voice is a baritone). In concert, it sounded like he could produce from low C (octave below middle C) to about top F. I agree with Gramophone magazine’s verdict that his voice has a “gentle lyricism”. It’s smooth, creamy and produced with ease, his intonation is clean, and it’s a voice that the listener can relax and luxuriate in. He doesn’t have the highly charged voice of Fagioli or Cenčić, or the transparency of Jaroussky, but it’s a well-controlled attractive voice. He does tend to hit the high notes with a bit of force but they have a warm resonance that lingers in the hall.

I wasn’t sure if there was a clear concept or theme in his programme beyond the title “Facce d’amore” (Faces of Love), which is rather vague (there were many arias about “eyes”), but it certainly included some beautiful gems and rarities of the Baroque repertoire spanning over eighty years from Endimione’s aria from Cavalli’s La Calisto to Hasse’s lovely aria from his 1736 Orfeo. I’m sure I’ve never come across Giovanni Antonio Boretti (c.1638-1672) or Luca Antonio Predieri (1688-1767) before.

Orliński particularly excelled in the arias that highlighted his lyrical and legato singing rather than technical and coloratura-type ones. In the first half, he charmed us with the lilting simplicity in Boretti’s “Chi scherza con Amor” from Eliogabalo, and in Giovanni Bononcini’s gorgeously dissonant “Infelice mia constanza” (O, unhappy constancy), one of my discoveries of the evening, he captivated us with smooth elegance and plangent voice, and seduced us further in the da capo section which he started totally unaccompanied, embellishing the melody line with gently syncopated rhythms. I was totally entranced. Meanwhile, in the mad scene from Handel’s Orlando with which he closed the first half, he sounded a little cautious rather than mad or confused, although the one-to-a-part ensemble of Il pomo d’oro painted the scene well with gritty playing. Directed from the harpsichord by Francesco Corti, they were crisp and lively, although a little forceful at times – they really needn’t project so much in Wigmore Hall.

The second half brought more pleasures. My particular highlights were Hasse’s “Sempre a si vaghi rai” (Faithful to such fair eyes), a lyrical and seductive aria, with gently flowing triplets, written for the legendary Farinelli, and Orlandini/Mattheson’s animated “Che m’ami ti prega” from Nerone where in the cadenza, instead of going stratospherically high, he went right down to his baritone range! He kept the vocal fireworks for the encore (in fact he generously gave us four, even asking the audience for preferences), delighting us with Handel’s “Agitato da fiere tempeste” from Riccardo Primo.

*****