Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 18, 1927, Georg Schnévoigt conducting
In London in 1791, struggling a bit to fulfill his compositional obligations to Johann Salomon, the violinist/impresario who had arranged this, his first of two English adventures, Haydn found himself stressed and greatly overworked. And frustrated by the presence in London of Ignaz Pleyel, who had been a student of his but now became a competitor. The Sinfonia concertante, the only piece in this concerto-like form Haydn ever wrote, is a hasty product of this difficult time. But who would ever imagine this masterful, ebullient work to have been composed under pressure? It bears the full imprint of a creative artist in full control of his powers operating at maximum efficiency.
In writing a work for four soloists and orchestra, Haydn could have looked backward to the concerto grosso style which was so much a part of his heritage, or maintained the progressive symphonic conception he had been so instrumental in shaping. That he selected the latter course is no surprise. It was natural for Haydn to think in terms of thematic contrast (actually a new element fostered by Mozart), and thematic development, and easy for him to lay out the work in the concerto style which had by that time been raised to a lofty level by Wolfgang Amadeus. Thus, in concerto fashion, the materials are shared by orchestra and soloists, and the four instrumentalists behave very much as a single concerto soloist might, except that they must give way, one to the other, or perform together in various ensemble configurations. A great deal of the Sinfonia's charm in fact emanates from the delightful combinations Haydn has devised, from the simplest harmonic and contrapuntal mergers to passages of extroverted brilliance.
The first movement is a vigorous show of strength, its themes more utilitarian for developmental purposes than memorable in themselves. The Haydn humor is a potent force, e.g., the quick two-note figures, both ascending and descending, that chirp merrily away are quaint French Baroque cuckoos with an Austrian accent. The Andante slow movement opens with a pair of duets, first between violin and bassoon, then oboe and cello, following which the partners change with great frequency. The last movement is a spirited affair whose thrust is interrupted several times by a mock-operatic recitative by the solo violin. Remembering that it was Salomon himself on violin in the first performance, in March 1792, it is not too far-fetched to imagine Haydn deriving special pleasure in putting the halting “words” into the impresario's mouth. But, quite properly, Salomon’s importance in London notwithstanding, it was Haydn who was to have the last word.
— Orrin Howard served for many years as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.