There was no filler, no curtain-raisers, no bonbons on the Borromeo String Quartet's program Sunday afternoon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Just three summits of the chamber literature looming there, craggy and vertiginous: Beethoven's Quartets Opp. 130, 131, and 132.
The program was the last stop in the Borromeo's traversal of the complete Beethoven Quartets, one that stretched over two years and three different venues, tracing the arc of the Gardner's own Sunday concert series as it migrated from the museum's Tapestry Room, to temporary quarters at MassArt, to the recently built Calderwood Hall.
Ensembles don't so much rehearse and perform these scores as they do live with them over the course of their careers. Sunday's concluding program boasted the combination of precision and vibrancy that has become a hallmark of the Borromeo's Beethoven in recent years. It was not a note-perfect performance for the ages, but a vital living document of one group's ever-evolving relationship to music at the center of its repertoire.
For the searching introduction to Op. 132, the Borromeo reached for an unvarnished, almost grainy sound that worked in the moment like a darkly abstract canvas, pregnant with possibility. A certain pointedness of articulation in the second and final movements brought out the more classical elements of this forward-looking music. The quietly glowing “Heiliger Dankgesang” — once aptly described by Aldous Huxley as “water on water, calm sliding over calm” — was its own self-enclosed world, as it must be.
The Quartet Op. 131 plays out in seven interconnected movements, here organically paced and delivered with an electrifying closing Allegro. For the ending of Op. 130, and the cycle as a whole, the Borromeo chose Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” (one of two possible conclusions). A sense of existential struggle is written into this howling, premonitory music, and the Borromeo dramatized that element, pushing instruments and techniques to their outermost limits. It was a fitting close to an epic cycle.
Meanwhile, the new Calderwood Hall continues to offer enormous potential for the Gardner’s future musical programming, but during Sunday’s program itself, I couldn’t help but wonder whether anything can be done to make the acoustics less dry. The Borromeo made the best of things, and throughout the afternoon, the expressive generosity of Nicholas Kitchen’s playing on first violin was a particular pleasure. So was the larger sense of how far this ensemble as a whole has grown in its most recent configuration. Appropriately enough, as one Beethoven cycle ends for this quartet, plans for another are already taking shape, in Japan in 2013.