In many ways, II Sogno is classic Elvis Costello. It exhibits all of Costello's wit, the sly asides and inviting melodies. Of course, in many other ways, namely the absence of vocals, a band, or anything that could be deemed rock 'n' roll, the album is a departure. Fans of Costello ready to stretch beyond Alison, or anyone in the mood for a wholly accessible classical album, will find II Sogno worth repeated listens.
The liner notes give the story of the album's progression. It began as music created for a ballet performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, written by Costello in 2000. The notes reveal that this is not the musician's first foray into composing classical music, although the music of II Sogno seems to represent his largest endeavor in that field thus far.
Knowing the story of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Shakespeare's fairies and lovers all firmly established in your mind, is far from crucial. The music is extremely visual, evoking images and emotions even without the Bard's help. This visual quality is so strong that at times the album seems to resemble nothing so much as a movie soundtrack. Whether or not that movie contains Puck, Titania, et. al. is up to the listener (and in the end, this album ends up playing a lot better than the most recent film adaptation of Shakespeare's play). In fact, attempting to adhere too strictly to plot points would probably take away from enjoyment of the album.
And really, the point seems to be enjoyment. Costello seems to be writing expressly to please the ear, and that is part of what makes this such a good album for non-classical fans. II Sogno will probably never be accused of expanding the horizons of modern classical music, but who's to say that's necessary? This is by no means a fluffy piece, but it works hard to please and ingratiate itself to listeners.
As befits the tone of Shakespeare's comedy, the tone of II Sogno is uptempo and light, punctuated by flute and horns. Those horns are highlighted in jazzy touches which surface throughout and remind the listener that Costello is at the helm. The jazz interludes integrate perfectly into the mood of the entire album, less as natural progressions from the more "traditional" classical sections than as interpretations which deepen the overall experience. They play as footnotes capable of standing on their own. As revealed in the liner notes, Costello added some of the jazz elements only when this album was being made, which may explain the discontinuity.
Fittingly, given its origins, II Sogno is the musical equivalent of a daydream: peaceful, wandering, and designed with you in mind.