Brighton Early Music Festival

BREMF review: Battle Cry: She Speaks @ St Nicholas Church

October 23, 2023

Review by Lisa Newnham 

An  intimate lunchtime recital in ancient St Nicholas Church adding its own perfect ambience to this delightful music. The rain was pouring as we enjoyed the positioning of Helen Charlston mezzo-soprano and Toby Carr on the unusual theorbo. Balanced, the two of them they held us and the space entranced. This award-winning duo chose a programme challenging the 17th-century obsession with female abandonment and lament.


The rich lyric tessitura of Charlston in her singing suited the combination of the melancholic lower tones of the theorbo, and this startlingly simple pairing of voice and instrument offered real insight into the emotional content of these pieces, bringing home the deeply personal narratives which are often diminished with more ornamented musical arrangements.

With new texts by Georgia Way, the voices of Boudicca, Philomela, Marietta and Sappho were brought into focus as we were asked what they might say today. When Charlston sang the thoughts of Sappho ‘Make my voice your Lyre, take my cries. In the honeyed night,’ the light bounced off the sandstone interior of the church and her sultry voice added its mellifluous depths to the doleful reflections of Carr’s flawless playing. They have been touring this programme for some months and you could feel the polished familiarity of both these superb musicians with the music.

See the full programme here.

Charlston added some informative asides as introductions to the pieces being performed, and reflected on the intensity of most of the music, with Carr offering some ‘palate cleansers’ of short pieces for his theorbo.


Opening and closing with Purcell is a perfect sandwiching of familiar and well-loved music with Owain Park‘s newly composed and they flattered each other’s style. The contemporary pieces fitting in with their referencing of early music tropes and adding the proud, defiant, and seductive voices of these iconic female narratives. Although the event was called Battle Cry these were more often Angry Laments. Full event details here: 

With a light-hearted encore from Barbara Strozzi, it was an added boon to have a female early music composer included in this programme which illuminates the voice and theorbo as a modern-day musical pairing and brings it forward into the 21st century. What a delightful way to spend a Saturday lunchtime with the howling rain waiting for us, patiently, outside.

BREMF continues until October 28 with their wide-ranging exploration of early music themed events. To find out more or book tickets see their website here: