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SUNSHINE – Maurice Jarre

December 17, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

sunshineOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

It seems to have taken forever, but Maurice Jarre is finally back in the scoring saddle again. After enduring the least-productive decade of his entire career, and after taking the longest sabbatical of all the top film composers, Jarre’s return to form has been cemented with his score for Sunshine, an epic drama tracing the social and political history of a Hungarian family before, during and after World War II. Director Istvan Szabó’s film traces the lineage of the Sonnenschein family, Hungarian Jews whose lives alter forever with the onset of the Anschluss and the Nazi take-over of what was then Austro-Hungary. The three male members of the family are all played by Ralph Fiennes (with varying degrees of facial hair, both in quantity and success): firstly Ignatz, a lawyer and pharmacist whose “miracle tonic” makes the family a fortune; then Ignatz’s son Adam, a lawyer and Olympic fencing champion who falls victim to the Holocaust; and finally Adam’s son Ivan, whose influential role in post-War politics allows him to bury the ghosts of his past. With a supporting cast that includes William Hurt, Jennifer Ehle, Rachel Weisz and Deborah Kara Unger, Sunshine is every bit an “epic period drama”, running for almost three hours in length and featuring stunning production values. Contributing immeasurably to the latter is Jarre’s captivating orchestral score, easily his best work in years.

Despite his meteoric rise to fame with big, symphonic scores such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Maurice Jarre chose to synthesize most of his music from around 1985 onwards. It was during this period that I completely went off him; personally, I found that the superbly crafted themes and inherent emotion vanished along with the majority of his orchestra, despite occasional successes such as Mad Max, The Bride and the award-winning A Walk In The Clouds. I am very pleased to report that everything we loved about Jarre in the 1960s is well and truly back.

Sunshine’s first cue, also entitled ‘Sunshine’, acts as an effective summary of the entire score, presenting the main themes in quick succession. After a brief but beautiful rhapsody for solo piano, the cue quickly leads into the first performance of the main theme: a beautiful, noble-sounding orchestral flourish which, cleverly, is constructed in an echoing call-and-response style across the orchestra, with the final few notes of each melodic line leaping from brasses to strings to flutes and back. A further theme, performed primarily by a solo horn, seamlessly intertwines itself with the first, while the final theme, for the women of the Sonnenschein family, appears at around the three and a half minute mark – a softer, more introspective piece for strings and flutes which bears vague similarities to his theme from Ghost, but without the huge, swamping string work. But before the delicacy can truly take hold, the suddenly music explodes again with huge timpani rolls and cymbal clashes, allowing the large and vibrant main theme to bring the cue to a close. I have often said that I love themes which begin with cymbal clashes: the fact that Sunshine uses this technique several times increases my appreciation even more.

The material for the Sonnenschein women is further developed in ‘Valerie’, while ‘War and Misery’, introduces a purposeful, strident march that obviously indicates the imminent arrival of war in the Sonnenschein family’s life. The opening minutes of ‘To The Ghetto’ are a dark, dramatic, completely depressing aural assault which somehow contrives to weave the most dismal recapitulations of the main themes into the fabric of the cue; it is testament to Jarre’s talents that such vibrant pieces of music can be re-orchestrated to sound so utterly forlorn and pathetic.

The music for ‘Adam, The Fencing Champion’ is a clever, more serious variation on the secondary theme which wavers dangerously to layer upon layer of violins, while incorporating a gossamer piano performance of the women’s theme and an unexpected snare drum solo. ‘Carol & Ivan’ maintains the somber tone with moments of dissonance punctuated by haunting solos for violin and saxophone, gradually bringing brief renditions of the main themes into the mix, before ending in resplendent fashion with ‘The Sonnenscheins’, a resounding finale which recapitulates each theme in all its magnificence, complete with the unadulterated glory of a full-voiced choir.

If one was to make one tiny criticism of Sunshine as an album, it would be to ask what happened to the rest of the score. Surely a three hour film must contain more than 36 minutes of music? And when the music is this exceptional, it is nothing less than a tragedy to discover that Milan chose to leave so much of it on the proverbial cutting room floor. Re-use fees could not have been an issue (it was recorded in Germany with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester of Berlin), so I presume the decision to leave the album so short was a purely artistic one on the part of Jarre and Milan execs Emmanuel Chamboredon and Russell Ziecker. If I may say so, it was a bad decision. Music as good as this needs to be heard.

Despite this small issue, I still find myself in awe of this score’s brilliance. In many ways, scores like Sunshine are just about the closest one ever gets to hearing “proper” classical music in the film music world; music that lives apart from its visual companion, that is structured on CD almost in concert form, and which is genuinely appreciated for its complexity, intelligence and beauty. It also serves to remind the world why, for many years, Maurice Jarre was regarded as one of the greatest composers of symphonic film music in the world, and why it is so gratifying to see him finally returning from the wilderness after a decade away.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Sunshine (5:00)
  • Valerie (2:41)
  • War and Misery (2:33)
  • To The Ghetto (5:25)
  • Adam, The Fencing Champion (7:16)
  • Carol & Ivan (7:56)
  • The Sonnenscheins (5:19)

Running Time: 36 minutes 05 seconds

Milan 74321-72986-2 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre. Performed by Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and Metro Voices. Orchestrations by Maurice Jarre and Patrick Russ. Featured musical soloists Holger Groschopp and Mártha Fábian. Special vocal performance by Catherine Bott. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy and Jonathan Allen. Album produced by Maurice Jarre.

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