Sinfonia Concertante

Programme note

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon (1792)

Allegro con spirito

As an offshoot of the twelve great London symphonies commissioned by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon in the 1790s, Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major has never consistently enjoyed the acclaim it deserves. Essentially a symphony which behaves like a concerto, it was devised at least partly as a vehicle for the versatile Salomon himself, in his guise as solo violinist. Initially, Haydn labelled the work simply ‘Concertante’, meaning that it was written in a concerted manner. By adding the word ‘sinfonia’, he stressed that it also had symphonic aspirations.

These, it might be thought, were what mattered more to him. Unlike Mozart, Haydn cared little for the art of the concerto, though he was better at it than posterity has made him out to be. But in London in 1792, honoured guest though he was, he had suddenly found himself faced with competition. Ignaz Pleyel, his erstwhile pupil, had arrived from Paris with a new sinfonia concertante which, when performed, proved an instant hit. Rising to the challenge, and under pressure no doubt from Salomon, Haydn hastily composed a sinfonia concertante of his own, complaining of eye-strain while doing so. The result, though it lacked the passionate seriousness of Mozart’s archetypal sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, had no trouble outshining the sweet nothings of Pleyel, who later turned his attention to the manufacture of pianos. Its concertante elements - like those of the Symphony No 98, which Haydn had directed in London the previous week - show his flair for timbre, and for the play of one vivacious instrument against another.

In the first movement, a leisurely allegro, the four soloists stand out from the orchestra in beguiling relief until, in their multiple cadenza, they break free entirely. The andante, with its exquisite oboe part, is a serenade in Haydn’s most tender vein, reminiscent of his exquisite series of nocturnes for the King of Naples. As for the racy finale, it begins with a musical joke - involving a sudden reduction in speed and the imitation of an operatic recitative on the solo violin - to match any in the London symphonies themselves.

© Conrad Wilson