CD Review: The Lord of the Rings Symphony

It’s been a big year for LORD OF THE RINGS fans. The extended editions were released on Blu-ray in June, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING celebrates its tenth anniversary, and now we finally see the release of Howard Shore‘s The Lord of the Rings Symphony on Howe Records, his personal label. With the help of conductor John Mauceri, Shore adapted the nearly 12-hours worth of music from his Oscar-winning scores into a two-hour, six-movement work. Like the scores themselves, the musical forces for the symphony are massive, calling for symphony orchestra, mixed chorus, boys chorus, and instrumental and vocal soloists singing in the Tolkien languages Quenya, Sindarin, Khuzdul, Adunaic, Black Speech, and Old and modern English.

Each of the three scores gets two movements, with the six movements reflecting the six books of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Because Shore had to create the musical world and numerous themes of Middle-earth in the first film, FELLOWSHIP naturally takes up the most space in the piece, occupying the entire first disc. THE TWO TOWERS and THE RETURN OF THE KING fill out the second disc.

For me to analyze the quality of the music at this stage of the game would be pointless. You either fall under the spell of Shore’s magnum opus or you don’t. But there are some things to keep in mind when approaching the symphony as a concert work.

This is not a symphony in the strict, traditional sense. With its unique six-movement structure and programmatic nature, there’s no getting around the fact that each movement is a string of cues from the various scores that ostensibly tells the story of the films, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Though Shore deconstructed and developed his themes throughout the film scores, the story, not the classical musical form, is the primary consideration here.

The live performance was recorded in February 2011 but you’ll be hard pressed to tell until the clapping following the first movement (which is intermission when the piece is performed in the concert hall) and the end of the piece. Ludwig Wicki and the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, based in Lucerne, have been performing the scores and symphony for years, and Wicki and his marvelous musicians arguably know this music better than anyone else. There’s not a false step anywhere in the performance, matching the performances of the London Philharmonic Orchestra on the soundtracks. The orchestra proves their mettle in the rousing lighting of the beacons of Gondor and throughout the piece, while the chorus can bring a lovely purity to the music of Lothlorien or a vicious bite to the Bridge of Khazad-dum.

Soprano Kaitlyn Lusk handles the solo vocal duties effortlessly, shining in “Gollum’s Song” and “Into the West,” giving the latter her own unique stamp, thankfully not trying to emulate Annie Lennox. But it is in the quiet moments that Lusk really shows her chops. Her poignant voice cries in pain following Gandalf’s death and in the middle of orchestral cacophany atop Mount Doom in “The End of All Things.”

Listeners looking for the percussion punch and in-your-face massive choral forces heard on the soundtrack will be disappointed. Having experienced these musicians performing the first two scores live to picture, the recording accurately sounds as the music does in live performance. What may be lacking from dials in the dubbing room is more than made up for in the breadth of detail that you can hear in the orchestra itself. Some of the transitions between themes can be a bit abrupt, especially following “Into the West,” and belie the inner cue structure of the movements, but that’s nitpicking and to be expected given the structure of the piece.

With its hybrid of storytelling film music and the classical symphonic form, The Lord of the Rings Symphony is a unique piece of music. I can’t think of another film score that has been adapted into a full-scale symphony like this. That it works as well as it does is a testament to the power of Shore’s music and his undeniable talent.

The Symphony won’t supplant the Complete Recordings, nor should it. Instead, turn to it when you don’t have 12 hours to devote to the entire trilogy. A superb achievement from everyone concerned. It was worth the wait.

9 comments

  1. I’ve been a big fan of the LOTR scores since they debuted, but I’ve been pretty ambivalent about this release. When I first heard of a LOTR symphony years ago I was really hopeful that it’d be an opportunity for Shore to flesh out the themes in long-form arrangements, but everything I’ve heard since then makes it sound like a playlist of tracks from the original CDs. I’m sure it’s excellent as a concert-going experience, and if it came near me I’d go just like I;ve gone to the New York live-to-projection concerts, but I’m mainly wondering about the experience on CD here. Is the arrangement or performance different enough from the original film recording to make it worthwhile to buy this music again?

    1. I was a little ambivalent as well. But since, God knows, it’ll never play NYC, I’ve always been curious about the symphony. While the cue-centric format is sort of what I expected, I was surprised at how effective it was and how well the piece flowed. I too would have liked to see something different, but I don’t think Shore was trying to create a something that radically changed the original vision. If he had, I’m not sure there would have been much of an audience for it, even if he’d kept it within traditional symphonic traditions and tonality. I started as a skeptic when I first put the CD in, but I quickly got hooked and once again fell under the power of Shore’s music. I’m not sure how much difference there is in orchestration or anything. I couldn’t really detect any, but I wasn’t really listening for that and I’d have to compare scores to find out for sure. Ultimately, it’s not an important consideration for me. The piece works as a full symphonic work where your mind supplies all the unseen story elements. I think the CD and the symphony are well worth the time and expense. But each fan will have to decide for themselves.

  2. I had the opportunity to hear the Los Angeles premieres of both the partial LOTR Symphony (Movements 1-2) and the full symphony at the Hollywood Bowl. While it was then and still is a magnificent achievement, I was disappointed that the music used in Movements 3-6 (Two Towers and Return of the King) was considerably less than the quantity of music used in Movements 1-2. While Two Towers was the transitional film that connected the Fellowship of the Ring to Return of the King, there was no reason to short-change much of the fine music used from Return of the King. Although the symphony has its shortcomings, it should NOT be missed or ignored by anyone who enjoys Howard Shore’s monumental score.

  3. Since my last post, I had the opportunity to listen to the full recording of the Lord of the Rings Symphony. Aside from my previous comments about the length of the Movements 3-4 (Two Towers) and 5-6 (Return of the King), I would like to add the following observations:

    * Some of the transitions between themes in the various movements are not smooth, and in some cases, are too abrupt. While this can be disconcerting, I attribute the rough transitions to editing choices when reducing the total music composed in the original film scores to the music used in the symphony.

    * In the music depicting the heavy banging and clanking of metal from the production of weapons, the overall effect in the symphony was too light…more chains and hammering of light metal. There were not enough anvils or other objects to lend any weight to the sound. This could be attributed to the live concert performance, and what was available to the percussion section at that time.

    All said, this was an excellent recording of the symphony, and should not be missed.

  4. Excellent review, as ever. One point. Jim, you wrote: ‘With its hybrid of storytelling film music and the classical symphonic form, The Lord of the Rings Symphony is a unique piece of music. I can’t think of another film score that has been adapted into a full-scale symphony like this.’

    There is Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica, adapted from his score for Scott of the Antarctic. Based on your review I would say the earlier work is much more of a true symphony, developing the material from the film score in genuine symphonic form rather than just stringing cues together.

  5. The Vaughan Williams is wonderful, his finest work for the cinema. Chandos recorded the complete score a few years ago for this CD: http://www.amazon.com/Film-Music-Vaughan-Williams-1/dp/B00006JK96

    The symphony, which is far better still is available in many recordings. I particularly like this one: http://www.amazon.com/Ralph-Vaughan-Williams-Sinfonia-Antartica/dp/B000000AJT/ref=sr_1_4?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1318001192&sr=1-4 but if you just want to sample it you can pick up recordings of some versions on Amazon for 1 cent plus shipping!

  6. Gary Dalkin makes an excellent point with his comment about RVW’s Sinfonia Antartica. However, the LOTR Symphony is more than just cues strung together…it was a first-class effort to create a symphony out of three related film scores. Becasue some of the transitions between themes are not smooth, and in fact somewhat jarring, the effect is that the symphony is made of cues strung together. However, it is much more than that, and does capture the scope of the LOTR films in symphonic form. Perhaps Howard Shore will revisit the score, and make some revisions to smooth out such jarring transitions in the future.

  7. I have to take issue with the contention that this has a ‘unique 6-movement structure’. Among others, Mahler achieved this a long time back with his 3rd Symphony.

    Know what you mean, just sloppy choice of words…

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