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Listening to Beethoven, while walking the dog and dodging cars
A streaming recital by the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard is displayed on a smartphone in New York on Nov. 8, 2020. The concert was streamed by the Gilmore, an eminent keyboard festival based in Kalamazoo, Mich. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Zachary Woolfe



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a French pianist, was staring up at the beautiful blue sky Tuesday morning and playing the solemn strains of a Beethoven sonata.

Staring up out of my phone, that is. I had put it down flat on a gnarled tree root while I fished out a plastic bag with which to manage my dog’s unmentionables. There have been times in my reviewing career when I felt like I was handling refuse, but never had the sensation been so literal.

The proximity of Aimard’s lucid, passionate virtuosity to the waste of my toy poodle, Gus, came about because of an experiment. I wanted to try, for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic largely closed down live performing arts worldwide, to review a concert taken in the way I have most music since March: while running in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, ducking into the bodega for milk, walking Gus, living life.

Would earbuds convey a musician’s subtle intentions? Would distractions — cars, texts, phone calls — allow me to follow a sustained train of artistic thought? Could a performer and I still enter into the kind of implied dialogue out of which criticism arises?

Yes? Well, sort of. I consumed Aimard’s recital, which was presented by the Gilmore, an eminent keyboard festival based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, as a series of episodes, as fragments rather than a cohesive entity. So much — indeed, almost everything — was lost in terms of my focus. But Aimard’s overarching agenda, connecting Beethoven’s music, in his 250th birthday year, to strands of 20th-century modernism, came through with clarity, attesting to the strength of his vision and the savvy of his juxtapositions.




I planned to watch the concert as it was streamed live from Berlin on Sunday; in scattered 2020 fashion, I forgot. But it is available until Wednesday, so on Monday evening I set out on a jog toward Prospect Park, glancing down at the screen when I could to see Aimard grow sweatier over the hourlong program. (Don’t try this at home; I had some close calls with cars.)

The program felt, in these surroundings, appropriately nocturnal, the park’s forested paths a mirror of the moody depths and wary, milky, moonlit glints of Messiaen’s “L’Alouette Lulu” (“The Woodlark”), from his “Catalogue d’Oiseaux” (“Catalog of Birds”). From the beginning, Aimard’s playing was a study in reverberation; it was perceptible even through slipping headphones how the music expanded in space and time. I only regret that, just as he moved from “L’Alouette Lulu” into the first bars of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, I accidentally turned off my phone.

Despite that unwelcome pause, Aimard’s point was clear: Messiaen’s forlorn yet slyly confident sounds were Beethoven’s, too. The transitions were crucial in this presentation; I think that by paying close attention to those, I experienced much of what Aimard wanted me to, even if I lost other aspects of the performance while trying to keep a halfway decent running pace.

The roiling, abrupt ending of the “Moonlight” led, without pause, to the dark, wet sounds — like the autumn leaves I was crushing underfoot — of another section from Messiaen’s “Oiseaux,” “La Chouette Hulotte” (“The Tawny Owl”). The ferocious ending of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata was immediately followed by the similarly pounding opening chords of Stockhausen’s “Klavierstück IX.”

I had saved the “Appassionata” and “Klavierstück” for Tuesday; what might have been weighty the night before now seemed, as I strolled with the dog, practically sunny — the Beethoven coming across as an attempt to rise above darkness, rather than succumb to it. (It was at the noble beginning of the second movement that Gus decided he needed to go: a collision of the sacred and the profane on President Street.)

The Stockhausen is known for its relentless beginning, but I was more struck in Aimard’s performance — and on this walk — by the sensual, dawnlike curlicues near the end. When he finished, this superb pianist bowed to the empty studio and walked off, his footfalls echoing as his tones had. I didn’t hear him under ideal conditions, but so little is ideal these days. I heard him, is what matters, and he was very, very good.

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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