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.