CD Review: Jakub Józef Orliński’s ‘Anima Sacra’

Forgotten 18th Century Masterpieces Revived By Ultimate Renaissance Man

By Jonathan Sutherland

Many young singers, especially in the baroque repertoire, tend to choose dependable crowdpleasers when making their debut CD.  “Lascia ch’io pianga” and “Ombra mai fu” appear with such ubiquity it seems almost sinful not to include them.

Polish wunderknabe countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński’s first major release for Erato/Warner Classics courageously breaks the mold. There are so many exotic rarities and forgotten treasures, that Orliński is akin to a musical Count of Monte Cristo dazzling his listeners with a vocal cornucopia of precious jewels. Of the 23 tracks, no less than 17 are world premiere recordings. Such originality reflects Orliński’s uniqueness as an artist – the handsome young Juilliard alumnus is not just a celebrated singer but also a highly accomplished break-dancer.

18 Months In The Making

Orliński graciously gives credit to his musicologist colleague Yannis François for having discovered these long-lost masterpieces and François’ excellent sleeve notes are illuminating. The whole project was more than 18 months in the making. It was certainly worth the effort. The album is entitled “Anima Sacra” which is usually translated as “sacred soul” but can also mean “sacred breath.” Given the singer’s celestial vocal color, the latter is much more appropriate. Orliński’s pristine Latin diction deserves magna cum laude.

The CD is primarily focused on the early 18th century Neapolitan-school of composers, particularly Francesco Nicola Fago (1677-1745). Due to his sobriquet of “Il Tarantino,” Fago was presumably small in stature, but the quality of his compositions as revealed in more than half the tracks on “Anima Sacra” is anything but puny. Another five forgotten Neapolitan-school composers are represented but this CD is light years away from being a boring academic exercise into recherché Baroque esoterica.

Whilst “Anima Sacra’s” most obvious appeal is the renaissance of so many bygone musical bijoux, it is the superb musicianship of both soloist and orchestra which makes the recording so rewarding.  Chapeau to Maxim Emelyanychev and Il Pomo d’Oro who show they can work as impressively with a young Polish countertenor as accompanying a diva assoluta such as Joyce DiDonato. Adding the placid organ to his usual role of pounding the hell out of the cembalo,  Emelyanychev brings infectious vitality to the recording without compromising performance precision and invariably ignites his ensemble of hyper-energized musicians.

There are some very minor criticisms of what is otherwise a superb CD. The first is that occasionally Orliński’s delivery is so carefully controlled there is a slight decrement in spontaneity which is odd considering how uninhibited and exuberant the young countertenor is on stage. Secondly, except for instrumental passages, the prodigiously gifted Pomo d’Oro players are not given anything approximating equal prominence in the overall sound mix. Miking is extremely close-in on Orliński which is wonderful for vocal acuity but limits the overall impact of the ensemble. A final niggardly observation is that two of the short recitatives of less than a minute are allocated their own tracks, which is structurally unsatisfactory and aesthetically disconcerting.


Things get off to a gentle, almost celestial start with Fago’s “Alla gente a Dio diletta” which is far from the flashy attention grabber with which many new offerings would open. There is delicate lute playing from Luca Pianca supporting Orliński’s elegant vocal line which is impeccably phrased with a seamless legato cantabile and Cicero-certified Latin diction. The countertenor’s translucent empyrean singing could have inspired Handel’s “Let the bright Seraphim.”

Track three brings superbly biting syncopated marcato strings leaping into “Memoriam fecit mirabilium suorum” which again displays Orliński’s exemplary breath control on words such as “annuntiabit” and “veritas.” The opening à capella melissma on “Memoriam” is splendid and “et miserator” particularly plangent. The concluding rallentando on “veritas et judicium” is superbly judged.

The brisk “Fidelia omnia mandata ejus” track (2:46 minutes) is especially memorable for the raw and raspy horn interjections by Egon Lardschneider and Michael Pescolderung. Orliński’s fabulously even runs, sparkling trilling, cavernous chest notes and pungent articulation of the word “facta” are spell-binding. The dramatic crescendo embellishment of “testimentum” is bravura Baroque singing at its finest.

Fago splits the ninth verse of the Clementine vulgate Psalm 110 to reveal even more fury afoot in the “Sanctus et terribile” and with the skill of a master alchemist, Orliński adds enough metal to his voice to sound like a wrathful Alceste in “Divinités du Styx.” The octave jump on “Sanctus” is deadly accurate and “Terribile” truly terrible. Rhythmic coordination between ensemble and singer is fierce and flawless and Emelyanychev’s strings have a piranha-ish bite which devours the relatively short track.

“Initium sapentiae timor Domini” is the shortest of the Fago selections coming it at just 1:18 minutes. The emphatic 4/4 marcato beat in strings and lute are plucky and puissant and Orliński’s exquisite trilling on “sapientiae” and “Domini” worthy of Sutherland in her prime. Fago again splits the verses of the Psalm and the allegro agitato “intellectus bonus omnibus” makes up Track seven. Orliński’s florid roulades on “saeculum saeculi” are again impeccable, this time with the added impact of the presto tempo. The semi-tone minor key resolution on “Gloria” is especially effective. The full force of the Pomo d’Oro players is on plenteous display in the rollicking doxology “Sicut erat in principio.” Horns are heroically emphatic and Orliński’s roulades and breath control nothing short of miraculous. Rarely has an “Amen” sounded so convincing.

Heinichen +

One of the few composers featured on “Anima Sacra” who can also be found on extant commercial recordings is Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729). In contrast to Reinhard Goebel’s heavy-handed reading of “Alma Redemptoris Mater” with Musica Antiqua Köln, Emelyanychev directs the Golden Apples with a stately Allemande-ish elegance observing the correct larghetto markings. Orliński’s opening à capella embellishment of “Alma mater” is truly arresting and sung with peerless precision. The two bar semi-quaver roulades on “maris” are delivered with Orliński’s customary superlative breath control and grace notes are con grazia ottimale. The tempo change to adagio brings some ferocious double octave downward scale passages from the strings leading to the “tu quae genuisti” accompanied recitative which evinces Orliński’s perceptive word coloring and masterful melissmatic technique.  A slight oddity was the termination of the track on “Virgo prius ac posterius” without cadence or resolution.

“Gabrielis ab ore” in 3/8 time which follows on track nine was notably abrupt, affecting the musical continuity. Orliński’s alternation of forte and piano on “Ave” is especially effective and his nuanced word painting in the surprising chromatics on “peccatorum” was Petrarchian poetry.

The middle tracks of the CD presented more world premieres from the Nicola Fago motet “Tam non splendet sol creatus” which seems to have become the hit of the album. There is immense energy in both vocal performance and orchestral accompaniment and the allegro roulades and embellishments are dazzlingly without sacrificing taste or intonation. The long fermata on “ah” before the da capo is ravishing. The softly lilting quasi-Chistmas carol “Dum infans iam dormit” again reveals Orliński’s gorgeous cherubim vocal color although curiously his intonation on the final F- natural seems to sag. The “Alleluia” is another paragon of vocal pyrotechnics, with virtuoso orchestral accompaniment abetting Orliński’s prodigious vocal prowess climaxing with a superb trill.

Inclusion of “Laudamus Te” by Domenico Sarro (1679-1744); “Judex ultionis” by Francesco Feo (1691-1761) and Gaetano Maria Schiassi’s (1698-1754) “L’agnelletta timidetta” add to the recondite potpourri. The latter has a bitter-sweet lilting melody with long dotted-rhythm phrases, dramatic leaps, fugal instrumental entries and desolate diminished harmonies affecting Orliński’s deeply moving reading.  In giving outstanding interpretations to these three contrasting arias, the countertenor makes a convincing case for bringing these composers out of the Baroque deep freeze – e subito.

The Close

In contrast, a large amount of music  by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) has already been recorded and at nearly 12 minutes, the Czech composer gets the longest track on the album, reflecting the high regard in which he was held by Bach, Telemann, and, much later, Smetana. The recitative and aria “Smanie di dolci affetti/S’una sol lagrima” reveal his original harmonies and intricate counterpoint. Like Fago’s “O nox clara,” the decision to record the recitative as a single track is debatable. Wind accompaniment was particularly beguiling and bubbling bassoon obbligato by Andrea Bressan worthy of  accolades. Orliński relishes the ornamentation on “quanto contento” which is pertly piquant. There are excellent changes of dynamics and deft diminuendi during the finely spun long phrases.

Johann Adolf Hasse was not only a favourite of Empress Maria Theresa and Metastasio but even hyperbolically described as “il padre della musica”. “Mea tormenta, properate!” from his sacred oratorio “Sanctus Petrus et Sancta Maria Magdalena” is an absolute show-stopper and Emelyanychev literally pulls out all the stops in a wild, almost manic performance of the most dramatic track on the CD.

Hasse leaves few markings in the autograph score other than “allegro di molto” but the young Russian conducts with plenty of “whips” although mercifully less “slaughter.” As a result there is much less circumspection in Orliński’s interpretation with some really exciting runs verging on the corybantic. The octave leaps are electrifying, scale passages immaculate and trills razor sharp. “Mori, O Deus, in te” is beautifully phrased in the refulgent top register. The middle lento section change to ¾ on “Jesu mi” provides a timely lyric contrast. Orliński’s word coloring on “serena” is seductive and the leggere embellishments on “cruce” and “paean” exquisite. The three bar crescendo fermata on “Jesu care” is so solidly pitched in the absolute epicenter of the note it’s almost ethereal. The à capella low B-flat chest note on “voca” before the da capo is sepulchral and the following extended trill on “me” superbly clean and perfectly paced. Il Pomo d’Oro re-detonate more frenetic fireworks and feverish bowing is so vehement it seems the strings could implode at any moment. It is sensational.

“Anima Sacra” finishes with an aria for contralto by Francesco Durante (1684-1755) “Domine Fili Unigenite.” For a supposedly ecclesiastical work, the syncopated giocoso rhythms and heavy buffo string marcato underpin a heady allegro florid vocal line which Orliński tosses off with the sparkle and panache of “Fin ch’han dal vino.”

The cover and inside notes of the CD feature photos of a serious, bare-chested Orliński oddly reminiscent of Joyce DiDonato in her “War and Peace” pastiche. Although appealing to many sensually susceptible CD buyers, this kind of scatological Yuja Wang/Lola Astanova marketing is disgracious and redundant. A serious, accomplished young singer such as Orliński doesn’t need a beefy bare chest and perfect pectorals to boost his CD sales. Erato is acting more like “Erotica” and with such a cover photograph, “Anima Sacra” would be better entitled “Corpus mirabilis.”

That said, one doesn’t need to evoke a latter-day Sybil to predict this CD will reap bounteous awards. And justifiably so.


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