- Mediterrano 1 & 2, for ensemble
"Whimsical" is a term not generally associated with modernist classical music, which is more often characterized as rigid, tightly controlled, austere, and high-minded. At least some of the pieces on this live recording of a performance by the ASKO Ensemble at the 14th Festival di Milano Musica in 2005, though, come across as giddily irreverent. That is certainly true of Xenakis' "Phlegra" (1975), scored for an ensemble of 11 instruments dominated by winds. Its odd instrumental juxtapositions and hiccupping rhythms make it a piece that would not be a stretch to describe as fun. The album includes three other works by Xenakis: "Dhipli Zyia" (1952) for violin and cello is dancingly playful to an extent unusual for the composer, and the last section of "Waarg" (1988) has a wacky exuberance. Edgard Varèse's 1923 "Octandre" is a classic of early modernism, one of the pieces that laid the foundation for the aesthetic adopted by Xenakis, among many other composers of the mid- and late 20th century. Its last movement, "Animé et jubilatoire," has a quirky liveliness that's undeniably celebratory. Fausto Romitelli's "Mediterrano 1 and 2" (1992) is one of the composer's more transparent compositions, and while the theme of the poem by Paul Valéry that it sets is dark and its tone is anxious, its mostly delicate scoring makes it approachable and direct in its appeal. What's true of all the pieces is that they are clear and easy to follow, at least for listeners who are attuned to and sympathetic to modernism. They may be immensely complex in their construction and incredibly difficult to perform, but they aren't complicated to listen to; the composers clearly mean to communicate emotionally with their audiences, and these works are evidence of their skill in accomplishing that. Undaunted by the music's technical demands, the ASKO Ensemble, led by Stefan Asbury, plays with complete assurance and high spirits that add immeasurably to the enjoyment of the album. The sound of the live recording is surprisingly clean and is well balanced and nicely detailed.