Word has gotten out about Masaaki Suzuki's Bach Collegium Japan. Three years ago, when UCLA Live brought Suzuki's remarkable group on its first American tour to present stunning back-to-back performances of Bach's two great Passions, Royce Hall looked half-empty both nights.
Sunday, for its first return engagement in the same series, with a smaller contingent of only nine musicians and a purely four-part Bach instrumental program, Royce was nearly packed, and the enthusiasm level -- the appreciation -- overflowed.
The same musical values were evident -- period instruments played with purity of tone and color, transparency of textures, vivid rhythms, and living, breathing phrases. But there was also an extra element difficult to describe. In the Passions, it had been the sense that the last days of Christ were happening right then, in front of awestruck witnesses rather than mere musicians and singers.
In the Bach program Sunday, it was as if the music were being played for the first time, or perhaps to put it better, in the timeless present that is the composer's -- and by extension, humanity's -- visionary true and natural home.
Take the ethereal slow movement of the Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, in which soloists Ryo Terakado and Natsumi Wakamatsu spun out interweaving arabesques that might have gone on forever without anyone's protest.
Or consider the Overture that opened the Suite No. 2 in B minor -- familiar music that sounded newly minted, like a grave summons to significant events, a link to the great B-minor Mass. Liliko Maeda was the virtuoso flute soloist, and like her colleagues, abjured flashy showmanship like the plague.
Because of the transparency and balance of the ensemble (period instruments encourage those values), each musician's contribution could be heard, and Bach's inventive ideas and scoring savored. In addition to those already cited, they included violinists Azumi Takada and Yuko Takeshima, violist Yoshiko Morita, cellist Hidemi Suzuki and bass Seiji Nishizawa.
Finally, and not least, of course, was Masaaki Suzuki himself, fluent soloist in the D-minor Harpsichord Concerto and the "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 5, in which the player abandons his continuo duties to take a long, demented, fascinating solo excursion. Suzuki played a 1997 Kevin Fryer two-manual harpsichord modeled after a Ruckers 1638 original.
The Collegium's "St. John Passion," already out on a BIS CD (as are 22 discs of Cantatas and the "St. Matthew Passion"), will be shortly released as a DVD. Advance copies were on sale in the Royce Hall lobby. It will be an involving reminder of a great performance, but let's hope the real musicians appear again in person soon.