'First impressions are often the truest', wrote Hazlitt. I was immediately struck by the amount of space on the Usher Hall stage, recently filled by so many large symphony orchestras. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra had plenty of space, a feature which was soon to be borne out in the music.

Alina Pogostkina © Felix Broede
Alina Pogostkina
© Felix Broede

What the Wild Flowers Tell Me is Benjamin Britten's 1941 arrangement of part of the second movement from Mahler's 1896 Symphony no. 3. This version for reduced forces was an attempt to correct what Britten felt to be a mistakenly poor first impression of Mahler: one very much at odds with modern opinion. Everything about the movement is light, from its elegant 'Tempo di minuetto' nature to the scoring. Pizzicato strings topped off with triangle ensure that transparent harmonies are projected to every corner of the auditorium. One of the joys of live performance is seeing the embodiment of the music in players and conductors. Rather than beating, Robin Ticciati seemed to be reaching into the orchestra to tease sensitive phrasing from his players. The balance of the SCO is this quixotic movement was excellent.

Tchaikovsky's 1878 Violin Concerto suffered a similarly difficult genesis. The first intended soloist, Leopold Auer, opined that some of the violin writing was misconceived and would not sound as the composer had intended. When, in 1881, it eventually received its première with Adolph Brodsky as soloist, conservative critic Eduard Hanslick reported that the violin 'was not played but beaten black and blue'.

Having heard Alina Pogostkina as soloist, it is harder than ever to understand such a view of this concert favourite. It would be unwise to use the word 'effortless' to describe a concerto performance, but it was clear that joy, rather than struggle, was what Pogostkina projected. She seemed to be greatly enjoying the contribution of the orchestra and often turned to watch them during tutti passages. A natural performer, she also inclined towards towards those soloists in the orchestra involved in musical exchanges. The finest such moments occurred in the central Canzonetta. Pogostkina's timing in this movement was wonderfully free and the orchestra were with her all the way – most notably Alec Frank-Gemmel (horn), Maximiliano Martín (clarinet) and Fiona Paterson (flute). Ticciati was especially impressive in this movement, demonstrating that the art of musical direction is, on occasion, as much about following as leading. The joyousness of the Finale, which belies the great difficulties the composer experienced at the time, was wonderfully communicated. Having got off to an early start with applause at the end of the first movement (and who can blame them, as it sounds more final than the Finale), the audience delighted in applause at the end of the piece. This performance came across really well. My neighbour in the auditorium, a critic from one of Scotland's tangible outlets, told me it was the best performance of this work he'd heard. It was the first live performance I'd experienced but it was easy to believe him.

On first impression, Shostakovich's Symphony no. 14 seems more of a song cycle than a symphony, setting eleven poems for soprano and bass. Drawing on Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker and Rilke, its topic is death. However, Shostakovich's artistic intention was an affirmation of life, to be achieved through these meditations on how death has nothing to offer. He hoped that people would embrace life and live well. The original performance (and many recordings) feature Russian translations of the poems. The SCO's version favoured the original Spanish, German and French, all very ably handled by Anja Kampe and Willard White. The declamatory vocal style, moving mainly in small steps, resulted in some very expressive moments when larger intervals were employed, and both singers really made the most of this.

The predominance of voices was not the only unusual feature in this work. The scoring for strings and percussion meant that Shostakovich had to resort to some colourful ideas to expand the palate. The one which most caught my ear was when paired string players divided between pizzicato and col legno.

More than anything, I was struck by the unusual musical language of the piece. Many passages would have kept a 'blind listener' guessing for quite a while. There were, of course, traces of Shostakovich's trademark irony, notably in Apollinaire's 'On Watch'.The composer's loveable darkness characterised Rilke's 'The Death of a Poet'. Vibraphone supported by softly sustained strings lent eeriness to Anja Kampe's rendition of this setting.

The previously trigger-happy audience stayed their hand as conductor's baton and musicians' bows were held in suspended animation. Even when this tableau dissolved, it was communicated, through Ticciati's body language, that the silence framing the music was still in place. A slight relaxing of the shoulders was enough for the audience to unleash their thanks for a gripping performance.