In less than 10 days two outstanding countertenors, Franco Fagioli and Jakub Józef Orlinski, visited London, offering distinctly different approaches to the solo recital experience. Both takes were rewarding. 

Fagioli’s performance in the Barbican, accompanied by the Venice Baroque orchestra, was a traditional baroque concert focused on Vivaldi and Handel. Orlinski’s debut at Wigmore Hall with Michal Biel offered more of a vocal showcase including Purcell arrangements, lieder, chanson and 20th century Polish music.

Fagioli started his concert with Vivaldi’s “Cessate, omai cessate,” a short cantata ideal for warming up the voice and the audience. I enjoyed his  expressiveness in the recitatives and a intelligent use of contrasts between staccato and legato notes, all the time sustaining a full, rich and powerful tone.

The next two Vivaldi arias were more interesting: in the slow “Mentre dormi” he grew more comfortable, adding interesting variations in the da capo.  In the bravura aria “Nel profondo” he combined his signature clean and accurate coloratura with an impressive lower register.

In the second part, devoted to Handel, Fagioli’s flexibility with tempi and variations made the music more spectacular. Did he indulge in too much freedom?  Some purists might say so, but I don’t think agree, as this kind of flamboyance is widely documented in Handel’s era.

A beautiful messa di voce in “Se potessero i sospir miei” expanded the voice from a delicate pìano to a full and penetrating forte. The 12 minutes of “Scherza infida” sounded deliciously intimate even for such a unfriendly venue for chamber music as the Barbican. “Dopo notte” closed the official program with immaculate trills.

The happy and enthusiastic audience requested more and got more: two arias from Serse (an opera he will singing next season in London), the second rounded off with a flamenco style stamp. Throughout the program the artist looked relaxed (his idiosyncratic facial expressions and weird neck positions while singing florid passages are almost gone!) and, more to the point, he seemed to be having a wonderful time.

Even though Orlinski is the new hot boy in the baroque music world, his recital was hardly traditional: he sang with a piano and barely a quarter of this pieces were from the baroque period. From the opening Handel Tolomeo aria, one could hear superb precision between the singer and pianist Biel. Including the recitative “Inumano fratel” demonstrated Orlinski’s admirable acting skills.

The next part, a set of Purcell songs was a bit of a gamble: the singer and pianist’s own arrangement of very well known Purcell airs.  But “Music for a While” (with syncopated accompaniment and extra trills even in the first part), the cold song from King Arthur (with the ascending notes coordinated to a slow build of intensity) or “Strike the viol” (a happy dance) proved a risk well worth taking.

The Schubert and Hahn that followed, handsomely but traditionally done, were not as interesting than less familiar music by Szymanowski (really beautiful songs with striking effects), Baird and a contemporary piece by Pawel Lukaszewski.

The concert ended with another Handel aria, this time a bravura one, “Agitato da fiere tempeste” which allowed Jakub to flaunt his effortless coloratura. The encore, Vivaldi’s “Vedro con mio diletto” is of course the aria that gained him a million views in on YouTube and his first recording for Warner classics.

This recital demonstrated that Jakub Józef Orlinski a lot more than just a baby-faced breakdancer. He is indeed a serious artist, one I cannot wait to see in a fully-staged opera.