Home > Reviews > THE RUSSIA HOUSE – Jerry Goldsmith

THE RUSSIA HOUSE – Jerry Goldsmith

December 31, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The great British author John le Carré died at the age of 89 just a couple of weeks ago on December 12th, so it is perhaps appropriate that we’re taking a look at the music from one of the best films adapted from his work – The Russia House, which was released thirty years ago. The film is directed by Fred Schepisi and stars Sean Connery as Barley Blair, a publisher who, after attending a book fair in the Soviet Union, finds himself becoming embroiled in a labyrinthine plot about nuclear arms proliferation, the military industrial complex, and a disgruntled Soviet nuclear physicist who is trying to smuggle his own state secrets to the west through Barley’s company, in the hope that it will hasten the end of the cold war. Thrown into the middle of all this is the increasingly romantic relationship between Barley and the beautiful Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Russian book publisher acting as the go-between for the information exchange, who may or may not be a KGB agent. The film has a terrific supporting cast, including Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, and Klaus Maria Brandauer, and has a score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Jerry Goldsmith was a master at a multitude of genres and musical styles, but one of the ones that I don’t think he explored often enough was jazz. Of course, he wrote some terrific jazz scores in his time – things like Chinatown, City Hall, and L. A. Confidential spring to mind – but I often think that this was a side of him I would have enjoyed hearing more frequently. The Russia House is considered by many to be his best jazz score, and I might be inclined to agree. To capture the relationship between Barley and Katya that forms the emotional cornerstone of the film Goldsmith wrote a sizzling romantic jazz theme that actually has more in common with something from John Barry’s canon than anything in Goldsmith’s past. The jazz is performed by three superlative soloists – Branford Marsalis on soprano saxophone, Mike Lang on piano, and John Patitucci on double bass – ably supported by Goldsmith’s orchestra.

The love theme features prominently in the opening cue, “Katya,” a luscious duet for piano and saxophone backed by strings that is so hot it could melt the Siberian permafrost. Interestingly, this theme was originally written for Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, but when that score was rejected and replaced with one by Stewart Copeland, Goldsmith re-purposed it as a love theme for the 1988 sci-fi noir thriller Alien Nation. However, when his score for Alien Nation was also thrown out (replaced by a dismal all-synth affair by Curt Sobel), Goldsmith decided to revisit it for a third time here – and third time’s a charm.

It gives the relationship between Barley and Katya a smoldering quality, but Goldsmith is careful not to over-play his hand. Several other cues later in the album, notably “Katya and Barley,” “Bon Voyage,” and “Barley’s Love,” offer slightly different tonal and instrumental takes on the theme that range from wistfully romantic to gently melancholic, and this stops the score from being endlessly repetitive.

In order to capture the Russian setting of the film Goldsmith also makes use of two specific instrumental textures – a tinkling balalaika, and a haunting duduk oboe. Both these instruments feature significantly in the score, anchoring the work in a specific geographic setting, and allowing Katya’s heritage to remain an important part of her musical personality. The physical sounds of these instruments also lend the score an interesting emotional texture; the duduk, for example, just sounds like a lament by its very nature, and its prominent use in cues like “The Conversation” and “Full Marks” allows the score to foreshadow the film’s famously downbeat ending.

The final element of the score is the one which addresses the espionage, the intrigue, and the political shenanigans at the center of the story. The cue “Introductions” is a perfect example of Goldsmith’s recurring suspense ideas; here, Goldsmith initially makes prominent use of Patitucci’s double bass, before switching over to the saxophone to carry the lead melodic line. This combo writing brings a real sense of danger and espionage cool to the proceedings, again with a definite acknowledgement to John Barry. As the score develops Goldsmith builds on these ideas with fascinating layers of sound. Sophisticated electronics are heard frequently, often underpinning the orchestra with a lively keyboard ostinato, with a moody glassy texture, or with a peculiar ‘whooshing’ sound that is unique to this score. When the synths are prominent the score almost feels like a dry run for the main theme from Basic Instinct, which Goldsmith would write a couple of years later. It also reminds me occasionally of the music James Horner wrote for another Moscow-set spy thriller, Gorky Park, back in 1983.

The rest of the score is, essentially, a set of variations on these core ideas: the jazz-based love theme, the combination writing for piano and saxophone, the textures for the duduk and the balalaika, and the suspense material featuring the electronic textures. In describing the score like that, one could easily come away with the impression that the score is repetitive, but Goldsmith was shrewd enough to continually make different combinations of themes and instruments, so that the score unfolds with ease. I especially like the takes on the suspense material in “The Conversation” and “Training,” the latter of which adds a sense of fast-paced movement to the electronic percussion under the orchestra and jazz trio, while the balalaikas provide jittery, nervous support.

The version of the love theme in “Katya and Barley,” as I mentioned before, has a slow, elegant, wistful quality, and features a syncopated piano motif that adds a layer of intrigue and mystery to Katya’s persona. Later, “Bon Voyage” begins with a fascinating conversation between piano and balalaika, both offering subtle hints of the main theme, which becomes lusher and more expansive as it develops into something quite longingly romantic. Similarly, “The Meeting” jumps backwards and forwards between the main romantic theme and the espionage intrigue; it’s a very clever cue which keeps you constantly on your toes and looking over your shoulder, as one minute Goldsmith is warmly enticing you with his seductive jazz, and then suddenly he’s trying to unnerve you with ticking woodblocks, plucked basses, shadowy synth noises, and that plaintive duduk.

“My Only Country” is perhaps the perfect summation of the entire score, as it combines stellar statements of all the score’s main thematic and instrumental elements, and because Mike Lang’s piano embellishments are notably lush. The conclusive “The Family Arrives” offers a final arrangement of the lovely piano jazz, accompanying Barley as he waits in his Lisbon apartment for Katya to arrive; Goldsmith’s writing is smooth, enticing, and deliciously romantic, and the electronic twinkles and soft chimes give it a sense of warmth and resolution. The cue then slides into the end credits suite to present one more final statement of the love theme, a reprise of the suspense material, and some fun and frivolous saxophone improvisations by the brilliant Marsalis.

The original MCA soundtrack album also includes one piece of classic jazz source music, “I’m With You” by Cole Porter, and an original song based on Goldsmith’s main theme, “Alone in the World,” which has lyrics by the great Alan and Marilyn Bergman, is performed with golden-voiced sincerity by Patti Austin, and is actually quite good despite the dated 1990s pop arrangement. There also exists an expanded CD album, which was released in December 2017 on the Spanish label Quartet Records. This expansion increases the score’s running time to more than 75 minutes through the inclusion of several previously unreleased cues and a couple of alternates. It was remastered and produced by Mike Matessino, and comes in a handsome package featuring in-depth liner notes by professional saxophonist and film music writer Dirk Wickenden. Absolute devotees of the score may want to pick it up, but I have always found the hour of music on the original album to be more than adequate.

The Russia House was the third and final score Jerry Goldsmith wrote in 1990, after Total Recall and Gremlins 2, capping off a tremendously creative and successful year for him. As I mentioned at the start of the review, I have always felt that jazz was a genre that Jerry Goldsmith was never given enough opportunities to explore, and scores like The Russia House confirm just how great he could be at it. As I said, there is certainly an argument to me made for The Russia House being the most entertaining jazz score of Goldsmith’s career, and if you want to experience that lush romance and those impeccable instrumental performances, as well as some lovely evocations of Russianness and some interesting electro-acoustic hybrid suspense, you can do much worse than this.

Buy the Russia House soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Katya (4:00)
  • Introductions (3:14)
  • The Conversation (4:17)
  • Training (2:03)
  • Katya and Barley (2:35)
  • First Name, Yakov (2:56)
  • Bon Voyage (2:16)
  • The Meeting (4:00)
  • I’m With You (What Is This Thing Called Love?) (written by Cole Porter) (2:42)
  • Alone in the World (written by Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman performed by Patti Austin) (4:13)
  • The Gift (2:37)
  • Full Marks (2:30)
  • Barley’s Love (3:27)
  • My Only Country (4:38)
  • Crossing over (4:16)
  • The Deal (4:11)
  • The Family Arrives (7:38)
  • Katya (4:03)
  • First Meeting (2:05)
  • The Package/London House/We’ve Got Him (1:37)
  • Introductions (3:16)
  • The Conversation (4:17)
  • Portrait of Katya (0:49)
  • Training (2:05)
  • Katya and Barley (2:35)
  • Who Is He? (1:32)
  • First Name, Yakov (2:57)
  • All Alone (0:37)
  • Bon Voyage (2:15)
  • The Meeting (4:02)
  • I’m With You (What Is This Thing Called Love?) (written by Cole Porter) (2:42)
  • The Lie Detector (2:17)
  • The Gift (2:38)
  • Full Marks (2:32)
  • Barley’s Love (3:30)
  • My Only Country (4:40)
  • Crossing Over (4:17)
  • The Cemetery (1:17)
  • The Deal (4:14)
  • The Family Arrives (7:43)
  • Alone in the World (written by Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman performed by Patti Austin) (4:14)
  • Barley’s Love (Film Version) (3:32)

Running Time: 61 minutes 33 seconds – Original
Running Time: 75 minutes 46 seconds – Expanded

MCA Records MCAD-10136 (1990) – Original
Quartet Records QR-303 (1990/2017) – Expanded

Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Orchestrations byArthur Morton. Featured musical soloists Branford Marsalis, Mike Lang, Michael Lea and John Patitucci. Recorded and mixed by Bruce Botnick. Edited by Kenneth Hall. Score produced by Jerry Goldsmith. Expanded album produced by Mike Matessino.

  1. Sue
    July 28, 2022 at 9:08 am

    Great article. Best soundtrack ever, it stays eith you long after the credits have faded.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: