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Review of Scroll Ensemble at York Early Music Competition

The Scroll Ensemble

Harpsichordist Iason Marmaras’s colourful socks suggested that we might be about to hear something unusual before he and his fellow musicians had played a note. They also dispensed with stands and sheet music. Was this an experimental drama troupe? A circus skills workshop?No, this was something much better. Based in The Netherlands, The Scroll Ensemble specialise in historically-informed improvisation. Baroque jazz, for want of a better term. We tend to forget that improvisation wasn’t always the preserve of jazz musicians; Bach, Handel and Mozart were masters of the art. These players don’t attempt to replicate Bach’s style, but instead “try to show what Baroque musicians may have done had they been asked to improvise from the same starting point.” So we began with a four-part suite based on the Ariafrom Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the original’s iconic bass line offering plenty of scope for exploration. It was fun to watch; James Hewitt’s violin particularly expressive in its lower register, ably matched by Robert de Bree’s sublime oboe playing. Throughout, Marmaras gamely tried to keep the pair on track, and fun was to be had watching violin and oboe occasionally cooperate before going off in separate directions. Fragments of Bach’s original occasionally flared up. Though what we heard generally sounded plausibly Baroque.

Larger in scale was a three-part improvisation based on Bach’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s A minor Concerto for two violins. De Bree switched, comfortably, to an alto recorder, and the whole was a beguiling listening experience. The Bach/Vivaldi original occasionally snapped into sharp focus, though the improvisatory excursions were more wide-ranging this time – we felt a pleasing sense of relief as the last movement’s theme returned to close the movement. Enormously rewarding stuff, the balance between erudite scholarship and sheer fun impeccably maintained.