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Julius Asal
Julius Asal (photo credit: Michael Reinicke)

Music Review: Pianist Julius Asal – ‘Scriabin – Scarlatti’

When Deutsche Grammophon announced its signing of 26-year-old pianist Julius Asal in October 2023, the label observed (among other plaudits) that Asal was “blessed with a rare talent for programme curation.” That’s evident on Scriabin – Scarlatti, his first release with the label.

The album interleaves sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti with Etudes and Preludes by Alexander Scriabin and the Russian composer’s Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor Op. 6. The album also includes two “Transitions,” improvisatory pieces by the pianist that comment on the program and help knit it together.

Pairing Disparate Composers: A Thoughtful Conception

What some might imagine would be a strange composer pairing proves, in Asal’s thoughtful conception, to sound most natural.

The pianist has a wonderful touch with the Scarlatti sonatas, combining superb clarity and agility with a shadowy kind of artistic perceptiveness. The first three substantial works on the album are all Scarlatti. Asal sandwiches the brisk C Minor K. 56 between the melancholy F Minor K. 466 and the limpid C Minor K. 58, interrupted only by Scriabin’s one-minute Op. 11 No. 20 Prelude.

The Scriabin Piano Sonata No. 1 follows. The composer’s early Romantic influence is on full display here. Asal wields a large arsenal of tone and touch as the moods shift from one movement to the next and sometimes within movements. Even on the recording, Asal seems to draw from the piano a warm, cloaked presence; it somehow feels as if the music is arriving directly into one’s brain without the ears having to process it.

One of the striking things about this Scriabin work is the sense of separate voicings in the right and left hands. Even when the left is pure accompaniment, as in the second movement, for example, Asal’s expresses a smoky tone that has a character of its own. The third movement’s left-hand staccatos are insistent without dominating. Scriabin wrote this music in the aftermath of injuring his right hand through over-practicing, so he put unusual focus on the left-hand parts. Thus, revealing the full riches of this music demands an independently expressive left hand, and this Asal has.

Off the top of my head I can’t recall hearing a recording or performance of Scarlatti’s introspective F Minor K. 238. Because it’s one of the easiest technically, it’s one of the ones I endeavor to play myself, so I’ve pondered it a great deal. Its juxtaposition of a dominant dotted-note rhythm with straight quarter notes and triplets is part of what makes it unusual and quirky. The gracious flow Asal applies to it, decorated with glassily clear ornamentation (sometimes, I suspect, of his own devising), is quite breathtaking.

Scarlatti, Scriabin – and Julius Asal

The pianist’s ear for sequencing is evident in his own “Transition I,” which carries forward the sonata’s rhythmic character and flows easily into Scriabin’s Etude Op. 8 No. 11 and his gossamer Prelude Op. 11 No. 21.

A few tracks later, “Transition II” sets up three Scriabin Preludes in a row. Asal unleashes what sounds like controlled fury on Op. 11 No. 14, pulls back for a beautiful rendition of the melodic, Chopin-esque Op. 16 No. 1, and attacks Op. 11 No. 6 (also very reminiscent of Chopin) with a finely calibrated balance of force and restraint.

To end the album Asal wields yet another color to bestow a Bach-like, religious flavor to Scarlatti’s Sonata in B Minor K. 87, and finally appends an excerpt from the “Funebre” movement of the Scriabin F Minor Sonata. We’ve already heard the latter, but Asal uses it to finish on a note that leaves us hanging. Is a sequel on the way?

On the whole Asal’s Scarlatti choices lean toward the quieter or sadder sonatas, while he reserves his fire for Scriabin. It would have been nice to hear his take on one or two of the livelier, more popular Scarlatti choices. But it’s hard to argue with the crafty flow of the album, and there is plenty of time to hear more from this brilliant young pianist.

Note: Asal’s experimental spirit led him to use two different Steinway pianos for the recording – and to record versions of some of the pieces on an upright piano and release them as singles.

Scriabin – Scarlatti comes out May 3, 2024 on Deutsche Grammophon.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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