The Mariinsky Orchestra are great, because Valery Gergiev arranges a schedule that only the great could sustain. In the two weeks before they arrived in Toronto, his musicians played six performances of Swan Lake in Berkeley, California. Then Gergiev took them back to St Petersburg (October 15–23) to play the operas Boris Godunov and Aida. Their current Canada/US tour brings 28 of the orchestra’s core strings, renowned as the Stradivarius Ensemble, to five cities in six days, beginning this Friday in Toronto’s acoustic wonder, Koerner Hall.

The program is cunningly wrought. Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, in homage to the Classical cheerfulness of Mozart, follows two grim 20th-century works: these focus on the destruction of German cities by the Allies at the end of WWII. The first, Metamorphosen, is Richard Strauss’ 1945 elegy for the city of Munich and German culture destroyed during the war. Cellos and basses respond to a hint from Gergiev’s quivering hands, swelling out a dusky, descending, almost atonal funeral march. Two violas murmur their muted tones, the basses cease; sections of violins join and withdraw from the sad choir in measured sequence. Currents of counterpoint slide and weave like a living, adagio tide towards an agitated central crescendo that ends with violas and cellos floating sonic veils into their higher, more hopeful registers. The final section brings back the undulating descent into the funereal. The music loses density and comes to rest by slow degrees like waves “Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world” (Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach).

Metamorphosen, subtitled “A Study for 23 Solo Strings”, is an extraordinary work if only because of the individuated detail of its orchestration. Each instrument in the circle has its own music stand and score. Gergiev squeezes every drop of possibility out of the protean transformation of Strauss’ simple themes. His hands are like the poles of a battery that connects his life-force to musicians who respond as if they were cells of his body. The Stradivarius Ensemble is so called because it plays with 400-year-old instruments by Amati, Stradivarius, Guarneri, Gaudagini and Gofriller. Gergiev gets a sound out of them that is fine-grained and rich, penetrating and transparent. And in the space of Koerner Hall you get to hear the full spectrum of Strauss’ colours in sharp contrast yet seamlessly modulated.

For Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor, the ensemble is enlarged to 28 players staged in conventional sections with shared music stands. But their performance is far from conventional. Ordinarily, Rudolph Barshai’s authorized transcription for string orchestra of the composer’s String Quartet no. 8 (1960), granted all its excellences, usually sounds like what it was intended to be: a popular rendition of the dense, tightly focused, intensely personal original. However, in Gergiev’s hands, the Stradivarius Ensemble intensified the quartet’s inherent drama and brought out colours I have never heard before.

This work was written during a visit Shostakovich made in 1960 to the once exquisite city of Dresden which had been fire-bombed in a punitive raid during the last days of the war. Grief for the crippled city, its 140,000 civilians killed in one night, the composer’s recent affliction with polio, and a suicidal despair from the frequent suppressions of his music under Stalin, all came to a point, and the work burst out of him in three days. It is filled with quotations from his earlier works, particularly the song “Tortured by merciless enslavement” from his banned opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the revolutionary song “Exhausted by the hardships of prison”. Shostakovich dedicated his work to “The Victims of Fascism”.

Gergiev chose a sedate tempo to open, drawing the sound towards transparency before jumping into the second theme, a crazy staccato chase. His strings mimic timpani and brass, as the grotesque parade whirls, arrests and jerks its course into the defiant second movement that features a Jewish theme and the first of several outstanding cello solos by Oleg Sendetsky. The third movement and the following largos are full of anguished intensity; the sardonic tone subsides into sadness, and Gergiev allows the music to fade away in more finely extenuated gradations than seem humanly possible. The concluding silence was hypnotic.

As Gergiev proceeded without intermission into Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, I was surprised to note it sounded a lot like what had come before. The orchestral textures and colours were understandably the same, but the sombre dramatic mood of the previous pieces also continued. Where other conductors focus on the gaiety of the work’s Mozartian model, Gergiev may have remembered that the Serenade was written during the same summer as his “noisy” 1812 Overture that commemorated Russia’s defeat of Napoleon. Gradually, warlike imagery gave way to familiar ballet rhythms: the audience was encouraged for the first time to forget etiquette and applaud a movement.

Russian folk song, ballet and balalaika motifs invigorate the subsequent movements that the ensemble played as Tchaikovsky intended – to the heart. Gergiev’s genius for drama that earlier illuminated dances of death equally animated Tchaikovsky’s dance of life.