The Hallé’s latest pre-Christmas treat was a ”greatest hits” programme of five of the most popular pieces by the two of the best known Nordic composers: Grieg and Sibelius. The orchestra was conducted by Stephen Bell, well known to Manchester audiences as associate conductor of the Hallé Pops. It would have been a big mistake, however, to dismiss this concert as somehow lightweight. We heard five masterpieces which have stood the test of time and gained the affection of audiences, all played by a very fine orchestra with very fine conductor and soloist.

The more substantial pieces were in the first half of the concert, beginning with The Swan of Tuonela, probably the most familiar of the Sibelius’ tone poems based on Finnish mythology. The orchestra conjured up the mysterious land of the dead and the mythical swan that glides over the surface of its river. They made the most of Sibelius’ remarkable orchestral effects such as the combination of strings and bass drum in the ominous beginning. The swan is represented by a haunting cor anglais solo, played beautifully by Thomas Davey. In less than ten minutes we had been transported to a world of darkness and mystery but also intense serenity.

Next came Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor with soloist Tom Poster. From the dramatic opening it was evident that this was going to be a special performance. Poster had a close rapport with the orchestra and conductor. Every phrase was carefully shaped and seemed to have meaning, as if he was telling a story. The balance between relaxed and intense was ideal, and Poster made expressive use of pauses. The first movement cadenza took us from the reflective and introspective to the powerful and grandiose with great virtuosity. In the second movement Poster created magical poetry out of the theme he took over from the orchestra. If it was the soloist who took the limelight, the orchestra was equally important and never overpowered the piano. With exquisite melodies (sometimes inspired by Norwegian folk music), a wide range of emotions, a virtuoso solo part and the suggestion of Norwegian landscapes, no wonder this is one of the best loved of all piano concertos. As an encore Poster played his own transcription of George Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me.

The second half of the concert started with Sibelius’ Karelia Suite. In 1893 Sibelius wrote the music for a pageant depicting the history of Karelia, the region around the border between south-eastern Finland and Russia, emphasising the Finnish nature of the area. He later used three pieces from this music to make up the Karelia Suite. As Stephen Bell commented to the audience, this was not intended to be polished music but “rough-hewn” and relating to folk music. The main march theme in the opening Intermezzo is not subtle and the Hallé gave a rousing performance. The central Ballade is much more intense with long, flowing melodies and a notable cor anglais solo (Thomas Davey again), very different in character from the one in The Swan of Tuonela, representing a minstrel’s song. The tension was released in an exciting account of the concluding Alla marcia.

Grieg’s incidental music to the Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt quickly took on a life of its own outside the theatre. The composer organised extracts into two orchestral suites; this evening we heard four pieces, three from the first suite and one from the second. In Ibsen’s play Morning accompanied the hero protecting himself from apes in Morocco but it has become associated with sunrise over a Norwegian fjord and the Hallé’s atmospheric performance conjured up (for me) an extensive natural landscape. Grieg claimed it was simply “pure music”. We then had the delicate, song-like Anitra’s Dance and the dramatic Abduction of the Bride: Ingrid’s Lament. Finally came the ever-popular In the Hall of the Mountain King bringing the selection from Peer Gynt to a rumbustious conclusion.

For an even more stirring piece to end the concert it had to be Sibelius’ Finlandia. Like the Karelia Suite it started life as music for a patriotic pageant, in this case disguised as a fund-raising event for the press pension scheme to avoid adverse attention from the Russian censors, and it has since gained the status of a second national anthem in Finland. The Hallé brass growled like a Russian bear at the beginning and the serene Finlandia hymn arouse out of the turbulence towards the end. A fitting conclusion to a stirring concert, but there was more to come: as an encore Bell and the orchestra gave us Grieg’s delightful Norwegian Dance no. 2.