The Music of Nikolai Rakov
The Russian composer Nikolai Rakov was born in 1908 in the city of Kaluga, about one hundred miles south-west of Moscow. He died in Moscow in 1990. Rakov began piano lessons at age seven, and violin lessons at age nine in his home town. He studied violin at the Rubinstein Conservatory in Kaluga, then at age twenty we find him in Moscow. He became a violinist with the Moscow Theatre Orchestra, and studied composition under Reinhold Gliere at the Moscow Conservatory. He also studied under Sergei Vasilenko. He eventually became Gliere’s assistant at the Conservatory. Rakov graduated from the Conservatory in 1931, and issued his first important work, The Mari Suite, the same year. Within a few years of graduation, he was back at the Conservatory as a lecturer, and by 1943 had become a full professor of composition.
Rakov was always deeply committed to his pedagogical activities. His students read like a who’s who of mid-twentieth century Russian musicians and include Edison Denisov, Boris Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Peiko, Andrei Eshpai, Alfred Schnittke, Karen Khatchaturian and Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Rakov believed deeply in musical education for young children, and wrote many piano pieces for the young to play. Although he won a government prize for his first violin concerto, and was honoured as a “People’s Artist” in 1975 at the age of 67, Rakov never held nor sought a political office in the Soviet musical bureaucracy. You will search in vain in his oeuvre for any hymns to the Party, tub-thumping oratorios on the glory of the Workers, or any other badges of Soviet Realism so many others - even the greatest Soviet composers like Shostakovich - produced from time to time. To a great extent, Rakov’s romantic idiom shielded him from the criticism of the authorities, leaving him free to compose what he wanted, when he wanted. It is the major works by Rakov the serious composer, as opposed to the pedagogical works of Rakov the educator that will concern us here.
Symphonies and other orchestral works
Rakov began his symphonic career with the magnificent Symphony # 1 composed in 1940, and subsequently revised in 1958. Here the composer expressed his musical ideas with a breadth and scope that in some ways he never surpassed. The symphony begins with a yearning six note theme which in various shapes and forms will provide much of the material for the entire piece. It is first stated simply and softly on clarinets, eventually reaching a mighty fortissimo statement of the motif by the entire orchestra, before retreating to a subdued remembrance of the melody in its original simple guise. The flute then begins a secondary theme which is picked up by the strings. After a pause, the development begins with fragmented snatches of melody bandied about the orchestra. Eventually, the music coheres recognizably into the first theme, which is then explored in various ways, gradually emerging out of the fragmented chaos. Finally the brass soars over the orchestra with a forceful declaration of the main theme, before dying down, exhausted, to a hushed restatement of the motif on the original clarinets. The movement then dies away softly on the strings.
A simple four note descending pizzicato theme opens the second movement, but is soon dominated by a dance-like counter-theme. This second theme surprises us with an almost Celtic air, as if we are at some Highland fling. The dance whirls away enthusiastically until it erupts into a fanfare statement of it from the brass. Then scurrying strings return us to the dance before the movement ends with a puckish grin.
The third movement commences with a theme reminiscent of the opening theme of the symphony, and we are back to the soulful, Slavic mood of the first movement. The strings unfold this flowing melody which grows more passionate as it progresses. Eventually, the horns intone a plaintive secondary theme over doleful strings, before making way for the main theme to once again build to a climax in the strings. Descending scales bring us back to the main theme again but this time stated melancholically by the full orchestra. A forte climax for the entire orchestra follows before the movement fades away to ominous chords over tapping timpani.
The fourth movement seems to pick up from the third, with dark tones and a gloomy mood. Suddenly the mood is dispelled by twittering winds which become more insistent, finally breaking out into a lively polka led by the winds. The brass joins in, followed by the strings and the whole orchestra celebrates the dance. A second theme on the oboe emerges and is picked up by the orchestra, before a reminiscence of the symphony’s opening theme is heard again. A pause leads to the clarinets picking up the dance theme again. This leads to a joyous full orchestra recapitulation of it, ending in a crashing climax that brings the symphony to an exhilarating close.
Symphony # 2 is subtitled “Youth” and dates from 1957. While less ambitious than the composer’s first symphony it contains many delights. The work starts with a slow, portentous statement of a five note motif which becomes the basis for much of the movement. It quickly is transformed to an allegro restatement of the theme for full orchestra, which is elaborated and developed at some length eventually reaching a dance like rhythm. After a brief pause, components of the theme are played against each other in counterpoint, building to a climax before relaxing to a more lyrical statement of the theme. The main theme then alternates with a secondary, lyrical theme until a climax brings back the portentous opening of the movement. A stirring coda rounds out the movement.
The second movement starts with a chattering motif in the winds, answered by scurrying strings. Eventually the two combine in a joyous climax. This process is repeated before the orchestra rushes to a happy conclusion.
The third movement begins with a tender adagio led by a beautiful melody in the winds over a pizzicato accompaniment. This theme is then picked up by the full orchestra ever more passionately until a climax brings a relaxation of the theme but in a more melancholy tone. The tune soon returns in its original guise for winds, but without the pizzicato, instead supported by doleful chords from the rest of the orchestra. The beautiful melody has the final say however, accompanied by a wisp of harp and celestial strings.
The finale leaps forth with a brass fanfare answered by the rest of the orchestra in a happy, skipping fashion. The strings eventually pick up the melody of the fanfare and trade phrases with the brass. A secondary theme briefly emerges but is drowned out by the brass fanfares. A drum roll brings in a marching motif which quickly evolves into the opening fanfare, followed by a restatement of the secondary theme. After a climax, the opening motif of the symphony interrupts portentously, bringing us full circle. However, the happy theme from the finale brushes away the gloom, and the symphony concludes with a joyous metamorphosis of the five note motif that opened the symphony.
Rakov’s Symphony # 3 for string orchestra, is subtitled “The Little Symphony”. It is a charming, undemanding piece with one theme per movement. It begins with a lyrical flowing melody somewhat reminiscent of the Tchaikovsky of the Serenade for Strings. The second movement is dominated by a stately slow dance in the violins over a pizzicato accompaniment in the bass. The brief third movement is an elfin dance over pizzicato, which ends almost before one can blink. The finale is a light-hearted melody that flows happily along, again reminding one of the Tchaikovsky Serenade. One can almost see in the mind’s eye the lightning fast footwork of the ballerinas in George Balanchine’s masterful choreography of the Tchaikovsky masterpiece, as the Rakov finale rushes headlong to its conclusion.
Rakov’s Sinfonietta is another charming miniature. It was written in 1958, between the “Youth” symphony and the “Little” symphony, and is in some ways Rakov’s most overtly Russian piece. The piece opens with a very Slavic sounding folk tune which evolves into a striding rhythm before returning to its original guise. The material is repeated before the Slavic tune in its original incarnation has the final say. The second movement showcases a very Russian sounding dance theme. One can envision here a peasant dance on the steppes. The lively third movement begins with a scurrying theme in the violins over a pulsing bass. High spirits abound as the strings switch roles, with the violins providing the pulse and the lower strings carrying the melody. The initial hi-jinks return as the violins return to carry us home. The fourth movement begins with a wistful, beautiful melody that brings greater emotional depth as it spins out its magical spell. It is soon interrupted however by a high spirited upwardly striding melody that once again recalls the dance. The Sinfonietta ends with a humorous pizzicato coda followed by emphatic chords. This is thoroughly delightful.
Rakov’s five movement orchestral suite “Summer Day” takes us on a wonderful journey with some happy picnickers on a day-trip to the countryside. It is utterly charming. The opening movement starts with a joyous, summery theme that seems to capture the elation of the picnickers as they arrive in the countryside and settle down in a beautiful meadow with their blankets and food. The second movement is a lovely, yearning melody. Perhaps one of the couples is in love and has gone off behind a tree to exchange tender endearments. The third movement is a playful tune. One can imagine the party playing a game of hide and seek and romping around the meadow, while the loving couple kisses behind a tree. The fourth vignette finds our revellers languorously resting on their blankets, contemplating the gentle zephyrs caressing their brows. The concluding movement finds our picnickers on the move again as they hurry home through the gathering twilight, with the carriages rolling merrily along. So concludes Rakov’s Summer Day and we can only be thankful he shared it with us.
The Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra from 1968 is typical of Rakov’s smaller scale works from later in his composing career. A shorter length, less elaborate development, and lighter orchestration mark these works, but they are no less charming for all that. The piece opens with a pastoral melody in the orchestra. The clarinet then joins in with a gentle, ruminative melody of its own. A more purposeful section begins with a rhythmic phrase in the orchestra while the clarinet accompanies with flights of fancy. A third section emerges with a striding melody in the clarinet which gets quite jazzy. For Rakov, as we will see in his clarinet sonatas, the clarinet always seems not far from jazz. After this lively section, the pastoral mood of the opening returns to close the piece.
Rakov’s Violin Concerto # 2 written in 1954 begins with an arresting cadenza for the solo violin that is quite extensive and very improvisatory. It certainly gets one’s attention. Eventually the orchestra joins in with a peaceful introduction, then supports the solo violin as it spins out a lyrical theme which soars to a climax. The orchestra then interrupts with a sterner tone, and the violin answers with a pleading tone to pacify it, somewhat similar to the device used by Beethoven in his 4th piano concerto, though not similar musically. Then the two join forces to soar to an exciting climax which subsides to a lyrical close.
The finale of this two movement concerto opens with an arresting orchestral introduction. The violin enters with some virtuosic solo passages which are commented on by the orchestra. The violin then sings out a melody that sounds like a beautiful folk song, before accelerating to dizzying runs. The orchestra joins in for an exciting passage until a cadenza arrives, shorter and simpler than the one that opens the first movement. The music then rushes off to what feels like it will be the conclusion of the concerto, but Rakov has some surprises left for us. The violin returns with a solo passage that leads into a flowing melody underpinned by comments from the orchestra. A beautiful lyrical episode emerges leading to an accelerando conclusion led by the soloist. Thus ends one of Rakov’s most interesting pieces in terms of structure and design, quite different from the more formal structure of his better known first violin concerto.
Rakov’s Violin Concerto # 1 is undoubtedly his most famous work and is also one of his greatest. It has been championed by famous violinists including David and Igor Oistrakh, and Andrew Hardy, all of whom recorded it. It won for Rakov the Stalin Prize in 1946. The three movement work begins with a downward four note motif in the orchestra followed by the entrance of the soloist who plays a flowing theme. A secondary theme is introduced by the orchestra and picked up by the violin including some staccato accents. This lyrical melody is then developed by the violin and reaches a full climax with the orchestra singing out the theme majestically. After a pause, the violin offers some lightning runs over a subdued orchestral accompaniment. A sudden halt by the soloist allows the orchestra to take the lead with a downward scale that eventually reaches a halting stop. A cadenza for the violin ensues with some obbligato interjections from the orchestra, before the violin returns to the first flowing theme, followed by the even more lyrical second theme. A virtuosic coda closes the movement with the return of the opening downward four note motif.
After a brief orchestral prelude, the second movement proceeds with the violin playing a beautiful cantabile theme underpinned by the harp. After a pause, brass fanfares introduce a second theme for the violin which is more fragmentary and episodic. It is punctuated by dramatic commentary from the orchestra, until the full orchestra sings out a passionate realization of the second theme. The original cantabile melody and harp return, but with more dramatic commentary from the orchestra and virtuosic runs from the violin. Finally, a meditative coda ends the movement tenderly.
The allegro vivace finale starts with a reminiscence of the opening four note motif before the violin is off and running with some showy pyrotechnics. It scampers along in a perpetuum mobile with the four note motif adding stabbing interjections throughout. The orchestra gives a full statement of the theme, giving the soloist a brief rest, before the violin returns for a race to the finish and a dramatic conclusion.
Nikolai Rakov wrote a substantial amount of chamber music. With his love of smaller forms it is not surprising that he excelled in this genre. His longest and most ambitious chamber work is probably his Violin Sonata # 1 written in 1951, when he was still composing large scale works. The opening allegro energico starts with an assertive, upwardly soaring melody in the violin. This is followed by a wistful second theme where the piano asserts itself somewhat from its hitherto subservient role. A development then ensues in which the first theme is shown in different moods and guises, before a restatement of the first theme proper. The piano then returns to the lead with the violin rejoining it for a return to the second theme, before a quicksilver ending brings the movement to an exhilarating close.
The andante second movement opens with a tender and lyrical melody played by the piano solo, before the violin joins in. Eventually the solo piano returns to grandly restate the melody on its own, but the violin quickly rejoins it. The piano and violin then trade phrases before coming together again in a full statement of the melody. The violin then winds down the melody to a pause before returning to a restatement of the opening of the movement, this time taking the lead over the piano. The theme soars to an impassioned climax with the piano grandly joining in. A sustained note on the violin brings the piano down to a quiet conclusion to this most beautiful movement.
The allegro giojoso is just that, joyous. Bouncy piano chords lead into a happy tune in the violin. The melody is then briefly stated by the piano solo before the violin rejoins. A slower, tender interlude for the violin commences until, gathering speed, the violin races up the scale and seems ready to burst into the happy theme again. But not quite! The melody starts and stops as fragments of the tune come and go. Eventually the violin launches into a new theme with the piano accompanying with downward scales. The violin builds to a new climax and after some piano chords finally comes home to the happy opening theme. The material is developed at some length by both instruments until the piano briefly takes the lead again with the second theme. The violin returns and soars back into the first happy theme again. However Rakov is not through with surprises. A climax is reached and the violin grandly states the beautiful melody from the second movement over majestic piano chords. The piece then moves to its joyful conclusion. Thus ends Rakov’s grandest chamber piece. As one listens to this piece one is impressed anew by how positive so much of Rakov’s music is. While he lived in a difficult environment and often depressing times, one will search in vain for works exhibiting the despair and angst so evident in the music of other Soviet composers of his time. Even when there are despairing movements within a Rakov work, they always end positively.
The Violin Sonata # 2 written in 1974 shows many elements of Rakov’s later style. Forms are less strict, melodies more impressionistic than linear, and there is generally a more improvisational feel than earlier in his career. The piece begins with an impressionistic theme which is tossed back and forth between the piano and the violin. This is followed by improvisational runs in the violin. A tender second theme is shared by the piano and violin before a quiet close. There is no recapitulation of themes or development of them per se. As with the Sonatinas for violin and piano, this work is on an altogether smaller scale than the first sonata. The piano starts the andante alone with a dark, brooding melody. The violin eventually joins and spins out a plaintive song. This picks up speed and intensity until the piano comes in with crashing chords, challenging the violin in its obsessive despair. The violin has the sad last word. After this tragic movement, one wonders how the piece will progress. This being Rakov however, we should not be surprised that the bleak mood is immediately dispelled by a lively, quirkily rhythmic theme typical of the composer as the allegro agitato commences. The violin and piano trade leads and join together as the theme rushes headlong to its conclusion.
The Violin Sonatinas # 2 and # 3 are absolutely charming miniatures that are a delight to listen to. The Sonatina # 2 opens with a broadly flowing melody which gives way to a more decisive virtuosic theme with rhythmic piano accompaniment. The two themes alternate again, and then a third time before a quiet conclusion. A bouncy tune opens the second movement before a burlesque episode interjects. The jaunty melody quickly returns to finish up. A striding melody opens the allegro finale. Plucked strings alternate with a more gentle melody to form a brief interlude, before the memorable opening melody returns to close this endearing work.
The Sonatina # 3 subtitled “The Little Triptych” also begins with a flowing melody in the violin. This is followed by a brief, choppy tune with pizzicato, before a restatement of the opening melody concludes the movement. In the second movement, a pompous piano bass line underpins a lyrical melody in the violin that almost seems sardonic. The violin gets carried away with itself briefly but we quickly return to the opening melody, this time played slightly differently as the violin plays it in a higher register than before. A quiet conclusion ends the movement. In the finale, it is the piano that launches a lyrical theme which is then picked up by the violin. Suddenly we are launched into what sounds like gypsy music. We can almost see the whirling gypsy dancers carried away as they spin to an exhilarating conclusion, ending the piece with musical hi-jinks.
Rakov’s Clarinet Sonata # 2 opens with a plodding accompaniment in the piano bass under a playful, wandering melody from the clarinet. This soon evolves into a decidedly jazzy theme which makes one wonder if Rakov was familiar with the music of Gershwin. The two themes are repeated, before the jazzy theme brings the movement to a close. The moderato second movement begins with the clarinet intoning a yearning melody, as if it is searching for something. The piano then enters with a solo theme of a tender cast, commented on by the clarinet, which reaches an ecstatic climax. The yearning melody returns to close the movement. A jaunty finale commences with the clarinet and piano trading jazz licks in entertaining ways. Some whoops in the clarinet then head the piece towards its rollicking conclusion.
The Flute Sonata # 1 starts with a melody that sounds oriental, as Rakov reminds us that Russia encompasses both east and west within its borders. A second theme flowing into lightning runs for the flute brings excitement to the conclusion. A beautiful cantabile melody on the flute dominates the second movement as the piano discreetly accompanies. A livelier theme briefly emerges before the cantabile theme returns to conclude the movement. An attacca link to the vivo finale is very effective as we swing into playful flute runs showing off the dexterity of the soloist. A march like second theme is underpinned by the piano before the playful opening theme gallops to the finish. As with the jazzy clarinet sonata, Rakov impresses with a keen ear for the possibilities, moods, and timbres that work best for each woodwind.
Nikolai Rakov wrote a great deal of solo piano music. Much of it is pedagogical for young students. There is also a fair amount of “easy pieces” that have much musical interest but are not beyond the reach of the amateur pianist. Rakov also wrote some larger scale more serious works for piano. A representative of this type of piece would be his Piano Sonata # 2. The piece opens with a quirkily rhythmical four note motif, which then shifts to a meditative chordal second theme. This is followed by dense runs and scales almost reminiscent of Medtner. A juxtaposition of these themes continues in a playful way until a pause leads us to a decisive allegro section that finishes the movement. A sad andante commences with a downward melodic theme with an accompaniment in the bass that sounds like the tolling of a bell. A more tender theme emerges in the treble which develops into a grandiose statement played forte, before the bell like tolling resumes in the bass. The third movement vivo is played attacca. It is a playful, brief, light-hearted movement that brings the work to a joyous conclusion.
Nikolai Rakov belongs to that group of composers who stayed true to their musical training in the late-romantic era. He followed his mentors like Gliere and Vasilenko, and kept an accessible, lyrical style to the end. Those who enjoy the music of Glazunov, Gliere, Grechaninov or the more approachable works of Prokofiev will find much to enjoy in Rakov’s oeuvre. His answer to the difficult environment he found himself in was to retreat to his pedagogical efforts and scale back the ambitions of his own compositions. He was a modest, private man and did not aggressively seek out performances of his works or notoriety. Yet his music has the absolute integrity of the artist. There is not the faintest hint of anything manufactured about it, and he never compromised his artistic vision either for personal gain or to deflect persecution. In an era of angst and tragedy, Rakov was a voice for joy and positive emotions. His music makes one smile and feel uplifted. One may regret that Rakov gradually abandoned the composition of large-scale works such as his Symphony # 1, Violin Concerto # 1, and Violin Sonata #1. Yet we are grateful for the grand works he did give us, and the miniatures of his maturity are every bit the equal in craftsmanship and charm.
All of the works of Nikolai Rakov discussed here have been recorded commercially, some of them more than once, and several by outstanding performers. Conductors like Rozhdestvensky and Neeme Järvi have committed Rakov symphonic works to disk, and outstanding violinists like Oistrakh and Andrew Hardy have recorded the Violin Concerto # 1. Not all of these recordings have made it to CD however. A definitive performance of the Symphony # 1 conducted by the composer, is available on a fine pressing by the Westminster label, that wonderful audiophile label from the 1950s. It can still be found on used LP sites. The other works are all on Melodiya LPs which also appear from time to time on such sites. The Violin Sonata #1 is available on a fine CD containing all of Rakov’s violin/piano music on the Delta label with David Fruhwirth on violin and Milana Chernyavska on piano. The Violin Concerto # 1 is available on an old Olympia CD with Hardy on violin, conducted by Dudarova. By all means seek out Rakov and get to know his wonderful music. He is certainly one of my favourite 20th century Russian composers.