Mr. Emmet Takes a Walk is the latest in the series of rereleases of works by Peter Maxwell Davies performed by the Manchester ensemble Psappha. The work premiered in 2000 and was recorded in 2005 and it’s the composer’s penultimate work for the stage. (FWIW I’ve heard five of PMD’s stage works but never seen one performed).
The libretto, by David Pountney, describes what goes on in Mr. Emmet’s head as he prepares to commit suicide by having a train run over his head. It’s a series of blackly comic episodes including. negotiating a deal with Hungarians in a Japanese hotel, a sinister encounter with a heating engineer, a cabaret act and more. The scenes are interspersed with pre-recorded lists of “things to remember” including “things to dislike” like Americans and New Labour. Like other PMD pieces the instrumentalists are sometimes incorporated i the stage action.
The music is entirely made up of reworked fragments of Bach, Gabrieli, Schumann and Mozart but good luck recognising any of that! To me the music sounds very typical of the composer’s other stage works. Sometimes it is straightforwardly tonal, sometimes it’s quite chaotic and not infrequently it parodies other styles such as the torch song or dance music. There are also train sound effects which are particularly disturbing listening on headphones as it sounds like the train is going through one’s head.
The cast on the recording is the same as for the premier on Orkney. Baritone Adrian Clarke sings Mr. Emmet, bass-baritone Jonathan Best takes all the other male roles and Rebecca Caine sings all the females ranging from a Japanese maid to an Eastern European cabaret singer. They are all excellent and cope with the complexities of the score very well. They also have perfect diction. The accompanying booklet includes the entire libretto but it’s only really useful for the stage directions as every word is clearly audible. Etienne Siebens conducts and gets great clarity from the singers and the ten instrumentalists.
There’s a bonus of a twenty minute conversation between the composer and Paul Driver of the Sunday Times.
The recording, made in the Great Hall of Lancaster University, is really excellent. It’s crystal clear with a real sense of a sound stage (listened to on 44.1kHz/16 bit WAV). The release is available as a physical CD, FLAC16 or MP3 from NMC Recordings. The catalogue number is PSA 1002.