There was a choice of Saturday evening listening on the first weekend of the 2017 Verbier Festival, but it came at a price. Orchestral Brahms from Sir András Schiff was scheduled against chamber Brahms from Barry Douglas, and judging by the half-filled church for the latter it seems the knight won the day. First Piano Concerto 1, Piano Quintet 0.

This unfortunate scheduling clash reduced attendance at what proved to be an ineffably satisfying night of chamber music. The Pavel Haas Quartet, garlanded for its recordings of Smetana and Dvořák, imbued a pair of masterworks by Beethoven and Brahms with unexpected textures and daring individualism. Yet there is no special secret to the ensemble’s precision: its near-superhuman unanimity is achieved by old-fashioned virtues of watchfulness, aural alertness and intense concentration.

The only puzzle was the players' physical configuration, with violist Radim Sedmidubský taking the cellist’s traditional seat and therefore playing most of the concert with his instrument's back to the audience, so to speak. It's conceivable that this layout assists the players’ eye contact, but it does little for the audience. Nor for the player, for that matter, as Sedmidubský was obliged to contort his waist through 90 degrees whenever he needed to project a solo line. One couldn’t help but think there are times when tradition knows best.

Traditions of interpretation are another matter, and one striking thing about the Pavel Haas Quartet is its return to first principles in everything it plays. A clean slate such as theirs is there to be filled by new thinking; and freshness of thought leads, as here, to startling music-making. Take Beethoven’s 12th String Quartet: for the opening movement alone my scribbled notes read “attack, balance, communion, insight – wow!”. Forgive me if I don’t expand on that. From the micro-perfection of its opening chord to an ethereally feathered final note, this was an Allegro con brio of unfolding joys.

A relaxed tempo change during the Adagio cantabile allowed for the briefest of oom-pah breathers before the players launched into a hyper-energised Scherzo, which saw torn bow hairs flying off in all directions, and a rousing Allegro finale.

After the interval, the prevailing sound picture was modified by the arrival of pianist Barry Douglas. He introduced a rush of air into the sound world. The Pavel Haas Quartet is such a homogeneous body that an additional voice was practically an intruder, albeit a welcome one; and the quintet’s slow, mysterious opening to Brahms’ Op.34, over and done with in a few bars, had a freshness that presaged a glowing 45 minutes to come.

Douglas and his Steinway were placed behind the strings for a reading that had more in common with a symphony than a concerto. The ever-sensitive Irishman blended readily into the musical picture, happy to be recessed in tuttis, and only stood proud of the ensemble when Brahms himself insisted on it. Yet his playing throughout bore the stamp of his own personality; unsurprisingly so, since this is music by a composer with whom he has a long-established identification. Douglas’ sparing use of tenuto during the restatement of the second movement’s Andante theme was especially treasurable.

The five musicians diligently eschewed any risk of vulgarity in their playing of the popular Scherzo, a movement that has earned its own popularity thanks to Brahms’ catchy use of syncopation over the cello’s repeated pedal note. Indeed, the players reprised it in truncated form as the evening’s encore. Not, though, before they had delivered a Finale of scorching changeability and complexity, with a coda whose ferocity drew gasps.

*****