Fago, Heinichen, Terradellas, Sarro, Feo, Zelenka, Hasse, Schiassi, Durante. Anima Sacra (vocal works)—Jakub Józef Orlinski (countertenor), Il Pomo d’Oro, directed by Maxim Emelyanychev—Erato 0190295633745—76:00 ****:

The theme behind this album—of “sacred baroque arias”—is to explore the genre of religious texts written in operatic style, however unexplored that genre has been. This is not Vivaldi or Handel baroque, rather the recording features works by Nicola Fago, Johann David Heinichen, Domenec Terradellas, Domenico Sarro, Francesco Feo, Jan Dismas Zelenka, Johann Adolf Hasse, Gaetano Maria Schiassi, and Francesco Durante. While these composers aren’t all new to our ears, the recording does feature eight world premiere recordings.

Which is to say that unknown pieces by an unknown vocalist may be a fitting union. Jakub Józef Orlinski isn’t new to the world of professional singing, but this is his first solo album, accompanied by Il Pomo d’Oro. (The orchestra’s name is a fun joke; it can be read as the golden palm or as… the Tomato.) As Orlinski writes, his earliest professional experience was singing religious Renaissance literature as a chorister. The orchestra is under good control and offers a fine palette of color across all the pieces, seemingly well balanced with Orlinski. The curious signature of the album, however, is the short amount of reverb attached to the orchestral sound. The liner notes reveal that the recording was made within a salon of the Villa San Fermo in Lonigo, Italy. One soon grows used to this sound listening on headphones, but at first the intimate sound of the horns and strings is a little jarring. Orlinski seems to soar above the sound without as much of an impact on the acoustic of the room. Some of the “bigger” pieces, such as Fago’s Confitebor Tibi Domine or the aria from Hasse’s Sanctus Petrus et Sancta Maria Magdelena would have enjoyed the larger acoustical space of a theater.

The Hasse aria Mea tormenta, properate! is one of the few pieces that’s already been recorded. It’s the crown jewel of the album. The orchestra bounces with real drama and Orlinski has no problems with volume or the higher notes. It’s also an excellent show piece, especially so in the slow section, allowing everything to relax after the first bustling section. This slower section, alongside others such as Zelenka’s Smanie di dolce affetti or Heinichen’s Gabrielis ab ore, reveal an aspect of Orlinski’s voice that may not agree with everyone. During slower sections where he holds out notes of significant length, a very mild vibrato appears in his voice. The American countertenor David Daniels has used vibrato; others, such as Philippe Jaroussky, tend to use vibrato as an ornament, rather than a mainstay of tonal production. The subject is still one of some debate (see Vibrato Wars | Early Music America) and having read the book by Haynes referenced in the aforementioned article, Orlinski is not using a continuous vibrato. However, I can’t say that the vibrato I hear is used ornamentally, either. As for some, it may be as the article suggests, a “non-issue.”

This album is not short on drama. In addition to the Hasse, the works by Fago and the single track of music by Francesco Feo deliver. The fourth movement of the Fago, Confitebor tibi, Domine, echoes the world of opera. As Orlinski notes in the booklet, composers could get away with this music during Lenten season when opera was not to be performed. But impassioned singing and breaks of music for shocking silence is balanced with tuneful arias such as Fago’s Sicut erat in principio. Feo’s Juste Judex ultionis puts the singing front and center, a fitting palette for showing off one’s skill at improvisation.

Drama was also not lost in the production of the album’s booklet and packaging. A full color booklet with the texts are included (German, English, and French translations are included of the Italian and Latin texts) alongside curious photography featuring the singer. The packaging itself features three photographs of Orlinksi; the cover has him posed with the album’s title in a state of undress and draped in a bluish type off gauzy fabric. Open the package and he appears less demonic looking, but also in a state of undress featuring his torso; opposite that he’s presented in clothes and “out of character.” Perhaps the genius of classical music marketing is lost on me, but the “theatrical” treatment seems overdone.

Then again, how many books are bought by what’s on the cover?

Anima Sacra is a noteworthy album because of its fine presentation of many neglected works, an effort to fuse music composed for purposes both inside and outside the church. It’s also noteworthy for introducing another rising countertenor. I give Orlinkski credit for choosing the more difficult task of opting to debut new works in his own solo debut album. And while vibrato employed by historically-informed singers is not a universally-determined performance practice, I tend not to like it for the countertenor voice type. Orlinski’s use of vibrato adopts a middle ground that allowed me, at least, to appreciate some of his strong vocal gifts.

—Sebastian Herrera