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Shostakovich gets a workout

The Borromeo String Quartet kicked off a five-concert series of Shostakovich works. (Liz Linder/file 2006)

The Borromeo String Quartet is one of the most intense bands in town. On Sunday afternoon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, it kicked off a five-concert survey of Dmitri Shostakovich's quartets with incandescent energy and searing lyricism. Fast sections thrashed with a fury and precision that would put many a speed-metal outfit to shame; even slow, quiet passages were shot through with electricity. But leave it to Shostakovich to throw a wrench into the works.

The First Quartet (Op. 49) might be the most deliberately inauspicious piece to ever anchor a major cycle. Shostakovich fashioned an inaugural essay of comic banality, a deliciously poker-faced divertimento: Every time the piece veers near profundity, he pours on another dose of acidic froth.

For much of the work, the Borromeo played in deadly earnest, seemingly determined to find a dramatic depth that simply wasn't there. Although much of the resultant sound was ravishing, the disconnect between material and interpretation rendered the proceedings curiously flat. However, at the end of the penultimate movement -- a scherzo that trips on its own shoelaces -- the musicians finally locked into the proper cheeky tone. The finale, a thumping peasant dance reimagined as a disaster-prone production number, was thrilling and hilarious.

The rest of the program was spectacular. Op. 68 was written at the height of the Second World War; the Borromeo's fiery temperament perfectly suited the work's tragic, operatic ambition. At its heart -- an epic, heart-rending recitative -- first violinist Nicholas Kitchen modulated between a whisper and a roar with a method actor's zeal.

Shostakovich's Third Quartet (Op. 73) was even more satisfying. Dating from 1946, just after the war, the piece is both an expression of relief and an exorcism of memory. The opening Allegretto brought forth a clockwork delicacy that soon revealed dark shadows; in the second movement, violist Mai Motobuchi's impassioned pleadings contrasted with a frozen, staccato waltz. Cellist Yeesun Kim exploded a headlong march into a virtuosic frenzy, with Kitchen and second violinist Kristopher Tong sawing demonic fiddle tunes over the frantic perpetual motion. And the ending, with Kitchen whispering razor-edge harmonics over a chord that the other three pulled all the way back to inaudibility, was magical.