Edvard Grieg's composing hut at Troldhaugen
© Dag Fosse / KODE

From the beginning of the 2022 International Edvard Grieg Piano Competition, which has just taken place between 26th August and 3rd September, not a drop of rain has fallen on Bergen, a city notorious for frequent and copious showers. Gags about the weather, therefore, are going great guns among the competition organisers and the warm-hearted music lovers who are attending the rounds and who address you casually, switching immediately into English as soon as you give them to understand that your relationship with the Norwegian language has been a distant one since at least the time that “men of the north” conquered Normandy and gave it their name. Upon sight of the press pass, the questions fly: the name Bachtrack is not unknown to them and they promise to read us.

This isn't a capital city where people are stressed. Rather, we're set between sea and lake, at the end of a sort of small isthmus at the top of which Edvard Grieg and his wife lived in a small painted wooden house facing a romantic landscape of forests, water and great dark sandstone cliffs, serene during my visit but which one guesses become more mysterious when the fog falls, more dramatic when the storm blows. Which gives us a better understanding of this music which Ravel described as “pushing us to look through the window", as beloved by audiences as its value it has long been underestimated. This despite the unwavering affection that some performers and composers have shown for it: Béla Bartók, for example, hailed Grieg as the first composer to have “freed himself from the German yoke”, to create a national idiom that the Norwegian (who was, by the way, a fervent Dreyfus supporter) wanted to be universal for both the public and the performers. As Claudio Arrau admiringly said: “Grieg's Concerto smells of cod”, so much does this work evoke nature and sea spray.

Some of the audience members welcome the candidates into their homes for the duration of the event – I choose the word deliberately so as not to keep repeating the word “competition”. It definitely is a competition, but there is something that makes it really different from most others. First of all, the eliminated pianists are invited to play in concert halls in the area and are paid for it! This is a nice touch that doesn't leave them alone with their disappointment and helps them fund the plane ticket they bought to come. They can stay until the end of the event if they wish – which a select number will do, and by no means the least talented.

The villa Troldhaugen, Edvard Grieg's house which contains part of the museum
© Dag Fosse / KODE

Next, this music competition-festival organises excursions to which competitors and host families are invited. And so, in a relaxed and joyful atmosphere, everyone gathered at the Ole Bull Academy in the tiny town of Voss in the Hardanger Fjord to hear some of the popular sources of Grieg's music from a singer, a fiddle player and jury chairman Einar Steen-Nøkleberg. The same people were there for Liv Glaser's enlightening lecture on “Grieg and Baroque music”, illustrated by examples played on the piano with a lilting sound that reminded us that this 87-year-old Norwegian celebrity was a student of Marcel Ciampi and Vlado Perlemuter at the Paris Conservatoire. Another interesting activity was a public performance lesson given at the Grieg Academy by Lilya Zilberstein, a prominent member of the jury.

The icing on the cake, unimaginable elsewhere, was a recital to which everyone was invited, given by Bruce Liu, winner of the last edition of the Warsaw Chopin Competition, at the invitation of the Grieg Competition, which benefits from the enlightened patronage of Stiftelsen Kristian Gerhard Jebsen. After this triumphant evening given in a large, majestic and well-sounding medieval hall, there are passionate discussions between the candidates about a Canadian pianist who, at a similar age to themselves, is already well launched on his career path.

All this contributes to creating a sort of warm bubble in which everyone feels at ease, even if the tension inevitable in a competition is in evidence. When I give my impressions to Christian Grøvlen, the competition director, and to his project manager Joachim Kwetzinsky, a big smile lights up their faces. The former tells us: “If you've noticed that, then I'm happy because that's my goal”. Grøvlen has ideas for the next edition, which will be held in two years' time: more Grieg and chamber music in the competitions and, why not, music for piano and voice. 

Troldsalen, the concert hall in Troldhaugen
© Dag Fosse / KODE

But on to the competition rounds: these take place in a small concert hall between the small Edvard Grieg Museum and the composer's house, which is open to the public, in a deep groove carved by the elements into the sandstone hill, a building so well integrated into the landscape that it is almost invisible. It barely protrudes from the ground around it and is overgrown with vegetation, including the roof! Inside, everything is white from wall to ceiling, with tiered seating leading from the entrance downwards to the stage on which a large concert Steinway awaits – which is retuned for each candidate. Behind it, a glass wall through which one can admire the lake and the tiny red wooden hut that Grieg had built to work in peace. It's inspiring!

The competitions are filmed and broadcast live on the competition website, as has become the norm these days, and we didn't miss the opportunity to watch some. Interestingly and somewhat uniquely, during the jury deliberations each evening, there is a forum in which the audience discusses its reactions, with delightful lack of restraint. As in almost all competitions, the decisions of the jurors are sometimes hotly debated. Even within the juries themselves, opinions are far from unanimous, with only a few exceptions. The juror Robert Levin told us (in admirable French) that in Bergen, he was happy to say, the virtues of the candidates were not discussed; rather, everyone voted for those they liked, which avoids the more strong-voiced jurors bulldozing the others. At the end of the competition, votes and scores are published.

The general level of the candidates was excellent. Those who were eliminated in the semi-final owed it mainly to a poor choice of programme and even more so to that merciless logic which means that, having started with twenty-seven competitors, there can only be three at the end... The Italian Elia Cecino, although captivating, should not have played Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7 after Schumann's Symphonic Studies. With an orchestral sound, inspired and in control, the Frenchman Guillaume Sigier made his mark on some jurors and listeners in Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. He was by far the best in the chamber music round, where he carried Ludvig Gudim's magnificent violin in the second movement of Grieg's Sonata No 3. Sigier won the prize for the best performance of a complete Grieg opus, which will earn him a recital in Leipzig and 3,000 euros. It is a pity that the Russian Dina Ivanova was eliminated, despite a magnificent Sonata Op. 7 by Grieg, received the prize for the best interpretation of the Notturno from the Norwegian composer Ørjan Matre. Another regret is that we didn't get to hear more from the Israeli Ido Zeev, who has already won a prize in Spain during a competition presided over by Martha Argerich, and the Palestinian Mohammed Alshaikh, whose Beethoven's Sonata Les Adieux reduced one jury member to tears.

Fuko Ishii, winner of the first price of the International Edvard Grieg Piano Competition
© Dag Fosse / KODE

The three finalists were singularly different. The first to enter the competition was Japan's Fuko Ishii. An impeccable pianist, accurate in everything she plays, capable of poetry in dreaminess in Schumann's Davidsbündlertanze, gave us a Grieg Concerto of which my only cavil was that her playing lacks projection and weight. But what an excellent musician she is at playing with an orchestra! Second up, the Polish Aleksandra Świgut. You can hear immediately that she is 'historically informed': she desynchronises right and left hand, dares to do insane tempo changes that the admirable Lawrence Foster manages to follow – and even catch up when the candidate loses control of the keyboard: a short fifteen bars during which one feared the orchestra would stop. But Świgut sometimes has brilliant insights, and dares to add a few notes in the vocal line of the slow movement of Chopin's Concerto in E minor! Her obvious lack of simplicity didn't bother the audience, who gave her their prize, as did the orchestra. In this respect, the remarkable Bergen Philharmonic were very involved. Finally, Zifan Ye from China, a smiling young man, who achieved an all-conquering Brahms Sonata No. 3 in the semi-final but was overly timid in the Grieg Concerto in the final.

And the prizes? No arguments here: first prize to Fuko Ishii who received 30,000 euros, second to Aleksandra Świgut who received 20,000 and third to Zifan Ye who received 10,000. Plus recitals and concerts...


Translated from French by David Karlin.
This article was sponsored by the International Edvard Grieg Piano Competition.