Review: Mild-mannered Richard Raymond proves to be a superhero of the keyboard

Richard Raymond.

Think of Richard Raymond as a kind of Marvel superhero of the piano. Away from the keyboard, the New Brunswick native looks like a bookkeeper, mild-mannered and bespectacled. Sitting in front of it, he’s transformed into a beast, with a commanding presence and bulletproof technique.

Raymond, who is based in Montreal, made an appearance in Ottawa Friday night as a guest of Roland Graham’s Master Piano Recital Series at Southminster United. He played an astonishingly ambitious, gruelling program of five — count ‘em, five — Beethoven sonatas, including the Pathétique, the Moonlight, the Appassionata, and the epic, swan-song Op. 111.

Although his career is by no means unimpressive, Raymond has always seemed to me one of those pianists who should be much better known. His playing combines colossal, impervious virtuosity with probing intellect and deep-rooted emotional empathy. In Friday’s two intensive hours of Beethoven, there wasn’t a single throwaway note, not one idea that wasn’t carefully weighed and thought out — yet the music seemed utterly free, organic and unselfconscious.

Raymond can play with heart-racing speed, but what I love most is his ability to build breathing room into the music: he never rushes the expressive impact of the silences between the notes. The solemn opening chords of the Pathétique were heavy with anticipation of the violent contrasts to follow; the Adagio cantabile was presented with affecting simplicity and heart.

Raymond picked sprightly tempi for the outer movements of the Sonata no. 9, underlining the mysterious shift in mood and colour for the central minuetto. In the Moonlight Sonata, the hushed first movement featured a velvety, luxuriant tone and an endlessly sustained legato, while the Presto had all the ferocious, thunderclap power of a natural cataclysm.

Raymond has the rare gift of being able to subtly foreshadow the later composers who were influenced by Beethoven. The absolutely demonic Hungarian gallop of a coda from the third movement of the Appassionata had shades of Liszt’s Rhapsodies. But Raymond saved the best for last, with his profound, passionate, masterful interpretation of Beethoven’s final sonata. Despite a few wrinkles of fatigue that started to show, this was a performance that had rigour, clarity of vision, lyricism, majestic tone, and an orchestral range of effects–the trill and double trill sections in the final movement were extraordinary.

How much Beethoven is too much? With a pianist of this calibre, the answer is “never.”

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.