This is not a soundtrack compilation, but rather a set of new recordings from Silva Screen with that label's regular band, The City of Prague Philharmonic with the Crouch End Festival Chorus, and a whole raft of solo vocalists and musicians. Any fans of Howard Shore's epic scores for the Rings trilogy hoping for recordings of previously unreleased music will not find it here – through the complete original soundtracks are set for release in a massive 9CD box set next year – as the selections here are all versions of tracks which appear in one form or another on the three original official OSTs.
What this set offers is both a fresh interpretation of highlights from the three scores, and a more compact programme for those who find the three full original albums offer more music than they need; this is set for a broad mainstream audience rather than soundtrack purists. The recordings here do not sound the same as those in the films or on the original albums, nor should they, for as producer James Fitzpatrick notes, "Shore's score deserves repeated recordings, performances and interpretations in different locations which will shed new light on a variety of aspects of the music when performed by another orchestra or conductor…"
Originally planned as a single CD of highlights, the end result has expanded to a 102 minute set which includes versions of three of the songs employed in the trilogy as well as a newly arranged 'overture' setting the main theme under the title 'The Fellowship'. For those who suggest that 102 minutes is short for a double album it should be noted the set retails for the price of a single disc.
When the original Fellowship of the Ring album arrived opinion at Film Music on the Web was strongly divided. Mark Hockley declared it "The score of the year…" awarding the disc five stars, while Jeffrey Wheeler offered four stars, Ian Lace three-and-half and myself just three. Mark added, "With stygian darkness and monumental beauty, Howard Shore has delivered the music that every Tolkien fan hoped and dreamed of." Well not this one, as I tended to side more with Ian, who wrote, "…there is a lot that is derivative in this score and rather too much of the usual Shore tedious thumpings and bangings. In some respects, by the end of its 71 minutes this album has begun to outstay its welcome."
Ian was also concerned about "the danger of subliminal associations and preconceptions? …with such music as the very Irish-sounding material for the Hobbits (not to mention Scottish stuff, at points, in the 'Council of Elrond'), never mind the Middle-Eastern-sounding figures that permeate cues like 'The Shadow of the Past' and destabilise the beauty of 'Lothlorien'."
Indeed, the Irish sounding material for the Hobbits has been a perpetual personal bugbear; Tolkien's Hobbits are shire-folk, the author's sensibilities rooted in English, Nordic and Icelandic traditions. The Irish sound Shore brought to the project is entirely inappropriate, having its roots in modern Hollywood's post Braveheart / Titanic commercial obsession with all things Celtic sounding. The Irish, Middle-Eastern, and indeed Mauri elements to the scoring all detract from the coherence of the work, which at heart is appropriately rooted in North European folk-classical traditions.
That said, with each following score in the trilogy Howard Shore's work has grown in stature, becoming more confident, less derivative of generic action templates and far more melodically rich. Thus while each individual OST album may outstay its welcome, there is still more than enough excellent music spread through the scores to result in a very strong double CD set. Silva Screen's anthology draws on the best of the material to craft a fine listening experience, and here on disc, dissociated from the screen images and original context even the Irish and other ethnic elements which seemed so out of place in the films prove thoroughly musically enjoyable in their own right. It is not that there is anything wrong with the material, only that it is wrong in its original context.
Meanwhile the performances and sound are very good, and the tracks, being specifically crafted for album rather than cinema may on occasion even work better than the original recordings, having a greater warmth and at times more finely shaped sense of melodic structure.
The first disc opens with a new arrangement of the main Lord of the Rings theme, 'The Fellowship', a gradually building anthem which explodes into spine-tingling glory at the four minute mark with the introduction of rolling drums. The discs also include new orchestral arrangements of the three songs most prominently featured in each film, Enya's 'May It Be', 'Gollum's Song' and 'Into The West'. The first, it could be argued, has no place here, not being part of Shore's score, and one of the most distracting elements of the original film. The recording though makes for a most attractive presentation of a rather lovely melody. The second is likewise effective in its sombre, twisted lyricism, though the last fails to carry real emotional weight.
The second disc ends with three 'bonus tracks', being vocal versions of the three songs. Jeffrey Wheeler wrote of the OST version of 'Gollum's Song', "Gollum receives his own practical treatment with a Hungarian dulcimer; however, the end credits 'Gollum's Song' is truly like a "Bond" ballad on downers. It is sad enough that Tolkien's classic verse is circumvented, but Emiliana Torrini's voice is like having glue down one's trousers…" In which case it is best to note replacement vocalist Helen Hobson skilfully recreates the obnoxious effect, sadly faring no better with the vocal version of 'Into the West' – a typical commercial mediocrity which at least in its original version by Annie Lennox was well sung. Between these Hobson's choices rests a version of 'May It Be' on which Tara Scammell offers an uncannily accurate, and thankfully melodically pleasing, recreation of the original Enya recording.
The meat of the album though is three suites, one from each film. The Fellowship of the Ring is represented by the moody, darkly choral 'The Prophecy' and a nicely pixilated 'Concerning Hobbits', before matters become more thrilling with the sinuous and insidiously chilling 'The Shadow of the East / A Knife in the Dark'. 'The Bridge of Khazad Dum' is a suitable intense accompaniment to the most exciting set-piece in the film. However, matters become much more striking when we move on to the suite from The Two Towers. 'The Riders of Rohan' sets the pace with a compellingly urgent evocation of heroic horsemen about serious business. The introduction of solo fiddle at 2.55 effectively summons the tragic situation of the film's human heroes. Charlotte Kinder delivers a beautiful soprano vocal on the gorgeous choral 'Evenstar', originally performed by Isabel Bayrakdarian. The choral atmospherics continue through 'Forth Eorlingas', with youthful purity of Margaret Ellerby's voice now taking the soprano, the cue turning to dynamic action writing at 1.17, leading into the grand choral set-piece 'Isengard Unleashed'. Here the City of Prague Philharmonic excel themselves as the fatalistic choral melodies meet complex combat music of a very high order, the cue segueing seamlessly into 'Gollum's Song' .
Apart from the bonus songs, disc two is entirely devoted to a lengthy suite from The Return of the King. This opens with a strong reading of 'Hope and Memory/ Minas Tirith', really catching the attention with 'The White Tree', a rousing, heroic call to arms, building into a heroic anthem of high order. The haunting, gorgeous 'Twilight and Shadow' was performed on the original soundtrack by the great soprano Renée Fleming. Here Charlotte Kinder has the unenviable task of stepping into her shoes, and acquits herself with flying colours, as she does again replacing Fleming on the very expansive (16 minutes) and finely crafted title track. 'The Fields of Pelennor' meanwhile is a strikingly forceful militaristic cue which accents emotion, tragedy and heroism over pure action.
A very rewarding, and bargain priced alternative to the three original albums. Not for those for whom only the originals will do, but highly commendable nonetheless.