In America, we have become accustomed to larger-than-life string quartets. Perhaps it is something that happens in our conservatories, or has to do with the vitamins we pour into our children or the size of our concert halls. Whatever the reason, young American string quartets usually come on like gangbusters.

Not so the Borromeo String Quartet, which performed Wednesday evening at the Freer Gallery. It may be considered American because it came together at the elite Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, but its personnel could hardly be more international, being natives of the United States, Italy, Taiwan and South Korea. It sounds "European": more lyric than dramatic, subtly expressive, moderate. It recalls more gracious times, the relatively nonviolent years before World War II, still audible between the scratches on some old recordings.

The program was all Beethoven. First, two works from his early Op. 18 (Nos. 4 and 5): neat, playful music, composed when he was emerging from the shadow of Mozart and Haydn and still an optimistic young man. Then, after intermission, Op. 131 in C-sharp Minor, the work of a man isolated by deafness, living in pain. It is a triumph over obstacles, one of the most imaginative and profoundly moving works of the 19th century--or any other, kaleidoscopic in its constantly shifting styles and technically very demanding.

The Borromeo seemed ideally suited to the Op. 18 works, light, melodious and well coordinated except for a momentary bit of fuzzy ensemble. Its Op. 131 might be considered controversial because we are accustomed to more muscle in this music, but on its more modest scale, it was excellently proportioned, touching all the right emotions and conveying well-varied shades of intensity from the opening fugue through a variety of dialogues to the bright finale. And for once in this music, it was refreshing to hear pizzicatos that sounded like pizzicatos, not gunshots.