The Borromeo String Quartet is working its way through the 15 quartets of Shostakovich, a kind of Stations of the Cross of 20th-century music. The third installment of the series, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday, featured Quartets Seven through Nine, each with a deep root in the composer's biography. The Seventh was dedicated to the memory of his first wife, Nina, the Ninth to his third wife, Irina. Sandwiched between the two was the Eighth, famously inscribed to the memory of "the victims of war and fascism," yet as personal as anything he ever composed.
Each spoke in a slightly different dialect of Shostakovich's unmistakable yet elusive musical language. The quizzical Seventh is one of his shortest quartets and has some of the austerity of the death-haunted late works. Its three movements cover familiar ground - from dry humor to asperity to emptiness - but each mood is unusually fleeting.
The Ninth, by contrast, is in five broad movements played without pause, including a galloping scherzo, two solemn adagios, and a lengthy finale that's almost symphonic in its scope and power. It shows particularly well how closely Shostakovich had studied the Beethoven quartets and incorporated their innovations to his own ends. It is also one of the best of the 15, and should be far more popular than it is.
Its popularity is probably being stolen by the Eighth, still the most popular of the quartets and one of Shostakovich's signature works. (Literally: A series of notes that corresponds to his German initials lurks within the musical texture throughout.) Usually it steals the show, wherever it falls on the program, yet here it seemed more like a stage in the composer's development. That impression was heightened by the emergence of motifs and timbres that threaded their way through each quartet. Familiar from the Eighth, by the end of the concert they simply seemed like tools in the composer's arsenal.
The strength of the Borromeo's performances lay in the musicians' passionate identification with Shostakovich's musical spirit. During moments of fury - of which there were plenty - they played with a collective urgency that drew a listener straight into his world. That said, intensity was sometimes substituted for execution. The Eighth, in particular, suffered from some slippery ensemble work and missed notes. The Ninth was much better managed, and the quartet dispatched its finale with a bravura that skated just to the edge of recklessness without going over.