Ahead of our upcoming Matthew Passion performances, we caught up with Andrew Tortise who is performing the role of the Evangelist
Your last stint as Evangelist with Dunedin Consort was a recorded performance of the Matthew Passion made and broadcast in April 2021. How does it feel to bring the Passion back to in-person audiences?
It was such a strange time, even for people who weren’t dealing with some of the extremely challenging personal circumstances I know many had to face, and I can’t help thinking that we haven’t properly come to terms with the pandemic yet. From my point of view, it was the first concert I had been involved in for several months, so to come in and sing Evangelist — plus chorus and the Choir I aria too — felt like a world away from the life I had been leading during that period. I think, perhaps, the difference between pieces such as the Matthew Passion and many other works of art across all media is that, even though it stands in its own right as a towering human achievement, it is a story which I feel essentially needs to be experienced by, and with, an audience. I’m looking forward to the idea of gathering together in a shared space and experiencing it with everyone involved in the performance — musician and audience member alike.
How do you approach works which see outings year-in, year-out like the Bach Passions? How do you breathe new life into such familiar works?
I’m very much not the seasoned Evangelist I would perhaps like to be — these performances mark only the fifth and sixth times I will have performed the role in this piece — so I feel like I am still discovering it. I suspect, though, that if you are open to it, it’s a piece that will reveal its treasures over the course of an entire lifetime. I remember Alan Rickman in his diaries describing something along the lines of how a performer – and I can certainly relate to this — might discover something authentic and truthful once, then either try to recreate it, or end up sort of doing an impression of how it felt. I suppose, in preparing for a role like this, you have to straddle the line between identifying what you would like to say, and then, in performance, forgetting it all and trying to create something fresh. Luckily, everything you could ever need to help with the telling of the story is there on the page. I think you just have to try and trust yourself — and Bach — to allow it to unfold, and not think too much about outcome, only intention.
Do you have a stand-out favourite moment we should look out for?
I feel like I came to Bach relatively late considering my exposure to his music as a pianist and choral singer. It was only when I performed his motets at Cambridge under the late Richard Marlow that I began to understand what all the fuss was about, so I immersed myself in his music, especially the large-scale choral works. I remember a very good friend of mine used to come over to my room and we would always listen to the same section: the sequence from Jesus’s death until the end of the piece. This section includes the third of what I think of as Bach’s structural Sicilianas, the great ‘Mache dich, Mein Herze, rein’. For me, however, it is the tenderness with which Bach describes the burial of the body of Jesus, and the intervention of Joseph of Arimathea, after the violence and suffering that has gone before, which I find almost unbearably moving.
If you could sing any part, any aria or play any moment yourself in the entire Passion – which would it be?
If Bach had written a part for the triangle (pace percussionists…) in the Matthew Passion I would be happy to play that if it meant I could be involved in a performance. But having thought about it a lot, I’m going to have to go for the bassoon, for one moment in particular. It comes towards the end of the passion in the alto aria ‘Sehet! Jesus hat die Hand’, which is a meditation on the concept of Jesus’s arms outstretched in a gesture of welcoming acceptance. See if you can tune in to the bass line and notice the bits that go something like ‘nn-doobie-doobie-doobie-doo’… After a long section of baying crowds, psychological and physical torment, and a mounting sense of injustice, it is a moment of calm reflection. Full of wit, invention, and celebration, it serves to reassure us of Jesus’s love as we go on to experience his anguished final moments on the cross until we can fully appreciate the magnitude of his sacrifice for mankind. The viola part in ‘Mache dich’ always sounds to me like a sonic hug, and I would love to know how it felt to play in that aria, but for me, the bassoon just about wins.