When Ryoma Takagi arrived from Japan to Norway to take part in the International Edvard Grieg Piano Competition, the first thing that hit him was the cold.

Ryoma Takagi
© Eisuke Miyoshi

“I was freezing! It was my first time in Scandinavia and I felt nervous. Not only for the competition, but also because I had to meet my Norwegian host family, with whom I had only spoken via email. I shouldn't have worried though, because everyone was so incredibly friendly and kind!” he remembers, enthusiastically.

We are talking on the phone – him in Tokyo, me in London – and the conversation flows easily, his friendly laughter rippling down the line.

Takagi started playing at the age of two. His parents are both keen musicians – his mother a pianist, his father an amateur violinist – and nurtured in him the passion for music from the very beginning. His teacher Elena Ashkenazy, the younger sister of Vladimir, had a huge influence on his playing.

“My mother had studied with her and asked her if she would give me lessons too. But Ashkenazy refused, because she only taught adults, not children. My mother kept asking, but the answer was always no,” Takagi remembers. “Then one day, when I was about 8 years old, we went backstage after one of Ashkenazy's recitals. It had been a great concert and she was in a good mood. She looked at me, took my hands in hers and said: “What wonderful big hands you have. They remind me of my brother’s hands.” And then finally agreed to give me lessons.”

Takagi studied with Ashkenazy until he was 15. “She taught me so much,” he says, “everything about classical music: what are the important things to look for when analysing a score, how to play and, the most important thing of all, how to sing with my piano. She used to say that the singer is the best job in classical music and singers have the best instrument, so we, as pianists, must play our melodies just as singers do, using the piano as our singing voice.”

Takagi's passion for piano led him to take part in many competitions during his career. But the Grieg competition felt somehow a natural choice. “The first concerto I ever studied was Grieg’s. Professor Ashkenazy gave me a lot of Grieg pieces to study: Grieg is so tender, so warm, and although it might not be as complicated as composers such as Strauss or Wagner, his music has wonderful harmonies.”

The International Edvard Grieg Piano Competition has been arranged by the Edvard Grieg Museum Troldhaugen in Bergen since 2012, as a way to discover new pianistic talents while also celebrating the heritage of the Norwegian composer and the natural surroundings where he lived. Taking place biannually, its main sponsor and exclusive private contributor is the foundation Stiftelsen Kristian Gerhard Jebsen. A strong connection to the Norwegian heritage is fundamental to the competition, and the participants, coming from all corners of the world, are hosted by local families.

“My host mother was a violinist,” Takagi explains, ”but while I was with them, she had a broken hand, so the organisers came around to check on her to make sure she had everything she needed. They took care of everyone. For example, participants who did not get through the final rounds still got to perform concerts around Bergen. The whole atmosphere was just wonderful,” he says. “The other competitors and I, we worked so hard and of course we all love music and we all wanted to win the first prize, but we were not rivals but good friends.”

“One evening, after they announced the semifinalists,” he recalls, “I was on my way home from the practice room at the Grieg Academy and I stumbled upon other competitors who had not gone through. They were coming from Grieghallen, where they had just listened to a concert by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with Leif Ove Andsnes. They told me: “the acoustics in Grieghallen are so great, you'll love playing there in the final. We are giving you our positive energy, good luck!” ...I was so touched! But then they all went out to the bar to drink together and I could not go because I had to wake up early to practise,” he laughs “but the atmosphere was really joyful, for all of us.”

And among Takagi's good memories from Bergen, one even involves a night-time adventure on a very special piano. “The competition's schedule was tight: I only had maybe one day or two between each round. I could practise for several hours at the Grieg Academy, but before the final I wanted to practise more. My Norwegian host father worked at a security company that owned a grand piano which had been personally selected by Andsnes, so he brought me where they keep it and I was allowed to use it to practise, which I ended up doing until midnight.”

Aside from the final, which is hosted in Bergen's main concert hall, the rest of the competition rounds are held in a most unusual and historically important venue, immersed in the beauty of the Norwegian countryside. The Edvard Grieg Museum Troldhaugen includes Grieg’s Villa, built in 1885 and home to the composer for 22 years, and a modern building featuring a music hall overlooking Lake Nordås.

“We played in Troldhaugen, where Grieg and his wife Nina lived,” Takagi explains. “When you sit at the piano, on the right you have the audience and on the left you can see the lake: it's amazing.”

Troldhaugen, Grieg Museum in Bergen
© Dag Fosse

“Competitions are necessary for all young pianists,” Takagi tells me. “Of course, sometimes they are difficult, and even if you play well you don’t get a prize. But there isn't one winner and everyone else is a loser: in a competition all participants work hard and devote so many hours to practising, and that’s so important. Musicians need to learn how to play on stage, not only in a practice room. Playing a concert is always a special moment and you can learn many things from it, and the most important is communicating with the audience while also getting energy and power from them.”

And the audience in Norway was particularly enthusiastic. “I felt a great energy from the public in Bergen. Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto is full of silences and there I really felt them: I listened to the atmosphere in the hall and everyone was concentrating on the music… it made me feel very comfortable while playing.” Takagi ended up also winning the audience prize, something he describes as “a huge honour”.

“The most important thing for me as a musician is the connection with the audience. It’s not only about playing wonderful music. The piano has a lot of energy and can be as powerful on its own as an entire orchestra: composers knew that, as they wrote so many orchestral pieces that can be also played just as well on a piano.”

Yet Takagi was surprised by his victory. “After every round, I called my girlfriend and I told her: this time I can’t get through, because my performance was terrible!” he remembers. “In the final, though, I really enjoyed playing with the BPO and Edward Gardner. He was very kind. During rehearsals he took so much time to practise alone with me and gave me lots of advice. The orchestra’s musicians were also very friendly. Some of them were from Japan and they told me how proud they were of me and how the orchestra was there for me, to support me, and to just relax and enjoy the music.”

“I studied the Rachmaninov that I played as my final piece with many of my teachers, including Elena Ashkenazy and Hiroko Nakamura, who have passed away, so before my performance I thought of my two dear teachers and my grandparents, and I told them: I am playing this wonderful concerto at a wonderful competition. Please listen to me from heaven, I will do my best.”

Ryoma Takagi performing in the final of the Grieg competition (image credit: Dag Fosse/KODE)

“Winning the Grieg competition was really important for my career,” Takagi tells me. “I got the chance to play with great orchestras in Norway, such as the Oslo Philharmonic, the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra. This is such a great opportunity for a pianist my age. I was also invited to music festivals such as the Lofoten Chamber Music Festival, where Sir András Schiff was performing.”

“This past summer I played maybe 20 or 30 concerts in Japan,” he continues, ”plus I played at the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg and at the Robert Schumann Hall in Düsseldorf. In January I have a recital at the Musikverein in Vienna and I look forward to playing again in such wonderful venue. In February and March I will play with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and I will also play Ravel's Piano Concerto for the left hand with the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Graf. It's all really exciting.”

Today Takagi lives between Vienna and Imola, in Italy, but Bergen will always feel like home.

“It has already been over one year since I won the Grieg Competition, but I can still remember everything like it was yesterday. I still speak regularly with my Norwegian host family and they even sent me birthday and Christmas presents. I am also still in touch with many of the other competitors: now I have friends all over the world.”

“For me the Grieg Competition was not only about the music, it was also about the warm and kind human experience: it helped me grow not only as a pianist, but also as a human being.”

Click here to find Ryoma Takagi's future concerts.

This article was sponsored by The International Edvard Grieg Piano Competition.