Jakub Józef Orliński Photo: Jiyang Chen

by Fiona Hook

Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński is perhaps most famous for the YouTube clip, viewed over a million times, in which he sings Vivaldi in cutoffs and trainers. He’s also a champion breakdancer and looks like a more cheerful version of Michelangelo’s David. This perhaps leads some critics to assume that he’s being packaged as the next Katherine Jenkins, and may explain the absence of reviewers at his Wigmore Hall debut with pianist Michał Biel.

They missed a treat. No one graduates from Juilliard’s Master’s programme and wins multiple prizes without a considerable dollop of talent. Orliński is a superb artist gifted with an amazing instrument and an extraordinary musical intelligence, and in Biel’s piano playing he has the mother-of-pearl setting that allows his jewel of a voice to shine.

The concert, to celebrate 100 years of Polish independence, took in an arc of three centuries and five countries. He started with Handel’s Stille amare, which displayed the acting ability that has already taken him to opera stages all over Europe. The recitative highlighted his skill in word-painting. “Ingiusto Araspe, dispietata Elisa!” spat bitterness, while the drooping, repeated “g già” in G vi sento smorzare il tormento had an authentic dying fall.

Four Purcell songs followed. I’m not entirely sure if Strike the Viol works at that speed, and he needs to attend to his English pronunciation, but The Cold Song was highly impressive, the voice narrowing to a thin stream of frozen sound, building in intensity, the piano’s repeated chords solid blocks of ice.

A group of Schubert songs were very pleasant, if not exceptional, while Reynaldo Hahn showed off the partnership again. The singer’s French also leaves something to be desired, but did not detract from the quiet joy of A Chloris. Biel’s light touch brought a whiff of Gilbert and Sullivan to Fêtes Galantes, managing to suggest that it was going to be some party.

The second half, a selection of Polish song, was blindingly good. Polish isn’t an often sung language, possibly because its complexity makes Ancient Greek look like Esperanto, but on this showing, it has a repertoire worth exploring. Szymanowski’s Op. 58 Kurpie Songs were written for a woman, but the duo have made these four of them their own. Counter-tenors can be a little monochrome, if beautiful, but Orliński has an amazing tonal palette, and it was all here. In U jeziorecka no-one stopped to think about the incongruity of a six-foot male fighting off a would-be seducer and fearing for his maiden’s crown. His voice, full by turns of panic and pathos, carried his audience with him into the composer’s imaginary world. The same qualities of chromatic and dynamic range were evident in Baird’s Four Love Sonnets, which surely deserve to be heard more often.

Łukaszewski’s melancholy Jesien deals with the decay of autumn. Biel’s improvised dripping prelude set the mood for more skilful sound painting and a admirable evenness of tone over intervals that dipped and rose like swallows in the wind. The repeated hummed phrase, the first with a little vibrato, the second with less, was particularly effective.

To finish, Handel’s showstopping Agitato da fiere tempeste showed off his wonderful bronze chest voice, and how much his control of coloratura passages has developed in the last two years.

The encore, his YouTube hit Vedrò con mio diletto, exemplified all the qualities we had come to expect, and added some more, lovely blossoming crescendi, formidable breath control, elegantly shaped long phrases, a lower register of exceptional beauty and, above all, his obvious joy in singing. The aria has become his signature tune, and one wonders how many times he can sing it before he gets bored. No hint of this here, as the voice swooped and soared, conveying vividly the longing for his beloved, and his suffering in being far away from her.

His debut had something of the pleasure of good wine, or a new violin from a good maker. Its quality is evident now, and will be finer yet.