We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, April 5, 2018


Michal Biel and Jakub Józef Orliński

We constantly attend enjoyable recitals; occasionally we hear outstanding ones; rarely, we hear one that grabs us in the heart--and that's what we experienced last night at the fine venue National Sawdust.  It made crossing the East River to Brooklyn seem like a walk across the street; on the way home we wanted to dance across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński and maître de chant Michal Biel both hail from Poland, have been honored and awarded multiple times, and can be appreciated as two very bright stars in the operatic firmament. We have reviewed them separately and together on multiple occasions. They always astonish us with their artistry but last night's recital was super special.

We are grateful to the Académie du Festival d'Aix-en-Provence and the financial support of HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) for offering this event.  The Académie has a 20-year history of supporting young artists; in 2017 they wisely chose Mr. Orliński as their HSBC Laureate.

Mr. Orliński has been blessed with a highly distinctive instrument that produces caressing tones which wrap around the heart. His overtones set the molecules of air in the room to dancing and the bones of the head to vibrating in a most agreeable manner. There is no straining at the bottom of the register, which allows him to tackle songs that would tax most of our fine countertenors.

The first set of songs (interrupted by applause after each and every one) comprised works by Henry Purcell, titan of 17th c. British opera. This was no dry harpsichordal performance! Our two artists arranged the songs with juicy Polish soul!

"Music for a While" was the perfect introduction.  "Shall all your cares beguile" is the perfect phrase to describe the subsequent performance. Purcell offers many opportunities for melismatic singing that took on the character of a vocalise. In "If music be the food of love" the word "music" was given some stunning embellishments and the word "love" achieved an intense and heartfelt coloration.

Mr. Biel was completely aligned with Mr. Orliński's intent and the staccato chords of "What power art thou" (from King Arthur) were mimicked by the voice. The music built in intensity and unease, achieving a feeling near horror.  "Strike the viol" was lively. The English was perfectly comprehended thanks to some excellent diction which is rarely heard from native American singers.

Reynaldo Hahn's music was composed around the turn of the 20th c. and thereafter but seems to look back toward earlier periods. Every one of his songs is a gem. "A Chloris" has a Baroque feel but "Mai" has a rather Romantic color. We loved the lavish piano figures in "Paysage".

"Fêtes galantes" is a frisky song with dramatic upward swoops, no challenge for Mr. Orliński. Rather, he sailed right through them and used the song to share his skill with dynamic control and his dynamic personality. Do we need to tell you that the Gallic requirements were more than met with superb diction?

We had expected to hear some Schubert but were mollified by the three sets of Polish songs. We rarely get to hear Polish songs except recently at a recital at the Kosciuszko Foundation; we were well compensated for the lack last night when we got to hear songs from three different periods.

We know Karol Szymanowski (early 20th c.) from his opera King Roger which we heard in Santa Fe.  Our pair of artists performed four of his songs which were written for soprano and transposed. There were no translations offered but Mr. Orliński gave us a brief précis of each song. This offered us the opportunity to focus our entire attention on the sounds and how well they fit the vocal line.

One song was about a lost love, another about a bird hiding from a storm, the third a lament by a girl relating her (badly) arranged marriage, and the final one about a girl collecting berries beset by an importunate man. These are all familiar themes and we might have guessed the mood without the details if Mr. Orliński had not introduced the songs. It was impressive how his vocal coloration, amplified by the harmonies written by Szymanowski as played by Mr. Biel, served to establish the different moods.

Tadeusz Baird wrote in the mid 20th c. and we heard Four Love Sonnets that were so much friendlier to the ear than American songs of that period. The second one began as a scherzo in the piano but evolved into a more serious mood. The third was tender and our guess is that the poet was extolling the beauty of his beloved. The fourth began with a ponderous piano that become solemn and then anguished.

The final song was composed by a living composer Paweł Lukaszewski.  "Jesień" went a long way toward overcoming our distaste for contemporary music. It was actually quite lovely and involved some improvisational piano. There was a searching melody sustained by the pedal and sounds came from Mr. Biel's piano that astonished us. Maybe it was "Michal Magic" but it sounded a bit like the cimbalom! The vocal line was jagged and involved some humming.

To cap the evening, our pair of artists performed a glorious work we have been listening to online quite a bit this week--"Vedró con mio diletto" by Vivaldi. The ritornello was particularly effective with sounds bouncing around the room like a ball in a squash court. We take it that this will now be Mr. Orliński's signature piece. What an incredible experience!

(c) meche kroop

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