The theme of this year’s Brighton Early Music Festival is “Women: Creators, Enquirers, Muses, Enchanters”. Whilst no named female composers (‘Anonymous’ notwithstanding) appeared in soprano Dame Emma Kirkby and lutenist Jakob Lindberg’s programme, the theme of “Heroines of the Golden Age” ran through the evening’s varied repertoire.

Dame Emma Kirkby © Rayfield Allied
Dame Emma Kirkby
© Rayfield Allied

Despite a sizeable venue and the subdued tones of the lute, the immediacy of Kirkby’s communication somehow brought the audience closer into the smaller soundworld. Kirkby varied her levels of communication, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, and made subtle use of outward expressions and gestures for the more dramatic songs. We were generously given all the texts, although Kirkby’s diction and communication were so crystal clear that this was really only necessary for few the songs sung in other languages – and I am sure that, were my language skills up to it, I would have understood every word here too.

They began with a brief yet evocative musing by Alfonso Ferrabosco on the creation of the world, with love bringing earth, air, fire and water together in harmony. Then came the first heroine – Daphne – with three interpretations of her story, one anonymous, the others by John Danyel and John Dowland. The presentation of different interpretations of the stories in the programme added interesting variety to repertoire that otherwise could come across as rather uniform in texture. The anonymous composer made great use of certain words such as ‘moan’ and ‘hollow’, whereas Danyel’s setting was a more straightforward telling. Dowland’s version is altogether more sophisticated, with a brighter, dance-like rhythm in the accompaniment.

Lindberg played a 12-course theorbo-lute, which gave him access to a broad range, allowing for low bass lines as well as the delicate upper registers. This was used to particular effect in the anonymous solo piece The English Nightingale, which, as Lindberg explained, portrayed a contest between a lutenist and a nightingale. The bird shows off its singing prowess with increasing desperation, with trilling in the upper registers being echoed at a lower octave in the instrument.

Byrd’s rich expression of Penelope’s tale, written for voice and four viols, but here transcribed for singer and lute, was followed by the most extended work in the evening’s programme, a dramatic rendition of Ariadne’s Lament by Henry Lawes. Here Kirkby’s dramatic storytelling was at its peak, and she sustained the audience’s interest in the outpourings of emotion with real skill. The closing epitaph was particularly moving.

Lindberg followed with a delightful suite by Henry’s brother, William Lawes, containing a courtly Almain, and a stately, rather formal closing Sarabande. Lindberg makes up for a slightly austere stage presence by drawing the listener in to the intimate world of the music, in great contrast to the outward drama of the song settings.

The first half closed with two songs on texts by the Greek lyric poet Anacreon. First, Henry Lawes’ double setting (Greek then English) focuses on love, and makes humorous play of the idea of a lute that will only play ‘love’, despite its strings being changed. Blow’s setting of Anacreon contained much more florid writing for the singer, and Kirkby’s execution was incredibly precise, whilst still communicating the text. The second section, with an almost jaunty lute tune contrasted with the decorated vocal line, was particularly impressive.

The second half began with life, death and fate – more word painting, this time in Latin, from John Wilson, followed by Cataldo Amodei’s recitative-like musing on morality and the futility of human endeavour.

Lindberg then gave us a dignified Toccata by Kapsperger, followed by Ciaccona Mariona all vera Spagnola by Piccinini, a delightfully delicate piece with the repeating falling bass lines of the chaconne paired with imaginative variation on the upper strings.

We were then treated to Dido’s Lament by Purcell in place of Mudarra’s take on the Queen of Carthage’s demise originally planned, with Lindberg’s own arrangement of the accompaniment and a touching edge of fragility in Kirkby’s performance. Lindberg followed this with a short Suite from Purcell, also containing a ground bass movement, and concluding with a sprightly hornpipe.

The programme concluded with two delightful tellings of Cupid being stung by a bee, with Kirkby acting out the story – twice – with a great sense of fun. Purcell’s take makes more of the humour perhaps than Pelham Humfrey’s, and his word painting (‘mournful’, ‘deep’) is more skilful. The final piece turned to Cupid’s mother Venus, and appropriately, given the theme of women, a setting of Sappho by John Blow. The lute ‘fanfare’ that announces Venus in her chariot is inspired, and Kirkby managed the intricate word setting (‘nimble sparrows’) with consummate ease.

It was a delight to see performers so able to communicate such intimate repertoire, making for a thoroughly engaging evening. The festival continues until Sunday 8 November.