I had been pondering the best way to provide some kind of commentary on the voluminous music that Howard Shore produced for his multi-award winning Lord of the Rings trilogy, but concluded that a detailed analysis would take too long and probably be a futile exercise. Providing highlights from ten hours of music would be difficult and at my usual rate, probably take till approximately the end of time. In any event, all three releases come with possibly the most detailed liner notes ever to grace a soundtrack release (although there are plenty of strong contenders these days) so anyone with more than a passing interest in the plethora of themes and their use is likely to be much better served reading them. Therefore, at the risk of casting too shallow a view, I plumped for more general thoughts, leaving the more detailed commentary to the original single disc releases. In truth, the expanded releases don't particularly change my view of the three scores; Fellowship establishes the best of the core thematic material, The Two Towers is darker, but still a little unfocussed for much of its running time and Return of the King mixes the best of all worlds, providing for a very strong finale. Much though it will likely pain die hard fans, the original releases do, for my money, still contain all of the best bits of certainly the first and third scores, The Two Towers being a touch too dark and introspective for much of its running time for highlights. Indeed, at just over three hours for the first two and three and three quarter hours for The Return of the King, there is an awful lot of music, even just one at a time. I like the epic symphonies of Mahler or Havergal Brian plenty, but much beyond 90 minutes, it's hard to maintain focus.
One of the comments I made in my original review of The Return of the King was my doubt that the Lord of the Rings scores would benefit a complete release. I rather fancied it was inevitable and the presentation of the Complete Recordings is as sumptuous as any release I can think of, but I'm still yet to be totally convinced of the merits of having every single note (more or less) available. The themes which didn't perhaps seem that strong first time round (save for maybe the ubiquitous Fellowship fanfare from episode one and the jaunty Hobbit music) have certainly distilled themselves successfully into the consciousness and it's maybe the crucial, but less hummable melodies that turn out to the strongest in the long run. Whether it's the mysterious Ring theme that opens each film or Gollum's skittish melody (although I'm still puzzled that Shore didn't use the melody from the song that closes The Two Towers as its tortuous melody seems even better suited), the important, but secondary main themes (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) are all the more powerful and potent.
For all the myriad of melodic content, I still have this nagging feeling that Shore doesn't do as much with the material as he might. Possibly they are too linear or too brief (few of them are more than half a dozen bars long) to put them through the assortment of variations one might expect in scores of this length and magnitude. The Wagnerian allusion is often made (both with the story itself, as well as Shore's music) in terms of the use of leitmotif, but too much feels like simple musical markers to highlight a character, object or place, rather than actual storytelling in music. I know it's an easy comparison, but the original Star Wars scores still hang together far more effectively as musical storytelling than Shore manages. It could, conceivably, be a matter of length and familiarity, but there are lengthy passages in all three of Shore's scores that don't really feel like they are going anywhere, especially some of the less inspired battle music; the final forest battle from Fellowship is a particular case in point, quite a lot of banging and clanging, but not a great deal of direction. Shore remains ostensibly stodgy in his approach to much of the action; true, when he fires up the chorus for the finale of Return of the King it makes your hairs stand on end, but too often it trundles along loudly, but without a great deal of musical purpose. Perhaps it's a side effect of having to score sprawling battles rather than the tighter skirmishes Williams had, but even so there are moments (some of them fairly lengthy) when Shore definitely seems to be marking time.
With typically effortless skill I'm pouring a lot of cold water on some scores that people do love, notably the listeners of Classic FM. Mind you, before The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I think they decided Gladiator was the best score of all time. Hmmm. However there is ample to admire. As noted above, the melodies are strong and there are a lot of them, many of which aren't obvious on first listen (Gollum's theme seemed particularly elusive for me first time round) but naturally many get a much wider airing on a three hour disc compared to a one. There are also a good number of scintillating moments, although few beat the Lighting of the Beacon from Return of the King, ironically one track not to benefit from being expanded. The addition of some joining material (of which there is a quite a bit on the Complete Recordings generally) robs the original album sequencing of some of its power as the buildup is stalled a few times. It's little things like that which validate the impact a good editor can have, carefully pruning the material to produce the best stand alone musical experience. Still, it's not the first example of the soundtrack listener becoming accustomed to a track on disc only to be reminded that the original film version isn't quite so slick and powerful. Sure, The Lighting of the Beacon is still a spine tingling moment, but the extra build up material doesn't really enhance the power of the moment, just makes it a bit laboured. On the flip side, the additional music afterward is very welcome.
Naturally, going from one and a bit to three or nearly four hours, the feel of each album is very different to the original highlights albums. The structure is always going to be a little looser than on a 75 minute disc, but it's surprising just how different it feels compared to say (sorry again for the lazy comparison) the original Star Wars albums and the double disc versions. Where they basically felt the same, with just the occasional addition and re-edit here and there, the Complete Recordings feel like completely different versions of the same music. There are passages that are obvious from the original discs, but few move or develop in quite the same way and the surrounding tracks are almost certain to be different. This is certainly notable in Fellowship and The Return of the King where there are obvious highlights around which ones memories of the score are built. Despite plentiful listens, there's not nearly so much material that stands out in The Two Towers save for the arrival of the Elves at Helm's Deep, which also constitutes one of Shore's best reworkings of a major theme, turning the mysterious Elvish music into something martial and striking. If only he'd applied that level of invention slightly more often, particularly the Fellowship fanfare which, even in Return of the King still seems to just appear in full brass mode every time and at the same tempo; in an action cue such as the otherwise fine Osgiliath Invaded, it simply doesn't gel with the dense, dissonant material surrounding it. Even more frustrating as when Shore actively shifts tone, such as the move from dense orchestral writing to solo female vocalist, thirty seconds before the end of the cue, the effect is stunning and immensely powerful.
If all that sounds like a load of reasons not to buy The Complete Recordings, don't let it be. The Lord of the Rings scores are a superb achievement, especially from a composer whose style didn't inherently seem to lend itself to such a grandiose undertaking. Maybe it's just a reaction to the almost universal praise they have received which leads me to pick them apart just a little more than I might otherwise have done. Also, the rampant completism of the Complete Recordings doesn't really show the scores in their best light. There's definitely plenty of material omitted from the originals that is worth hearing, but also a lot that wouldn't be a huge loss if it weren't on disc. In all three cases, the music at the beginning and end of the scores is generally stronger than the middle and a little pruning midway might have worked in favour. Still, it was always likely to be more or less complete despite, I suspect, there being quite a number of alternate versions of certain cues or where there are differences with how music features in the film; they are not slavish, Phantom Menace style releases with every edit from the film left in - fortunately. Maybe I'll revisit these comments in five years and realise that I was too harsh, but I just felt a little perspective was in order. However, if you can clear a few hours in your day for each of these scores, they do contain plentiful riches and whatever one can say about the technical aspects of the score, Shore has successfully created an all encompassing sound world that is exciting, dark and atmospheric enough to evoke every corner of Middle Earth.
As a footnote, each release comes with the entire score on one DVD in 5.1 sound and it has to be said that the results are considerably more impressive than the occasionally uninspiring mixes found on the regular CDs. Whether it's the mixing, the orchestration or the recording venue, there have always been some grumbles about the stereo mixes, but 5.1 allows the sound field to be opened up. You get a real three dimensional feel for the orchestra and, in particular, the choral passages there the layers are more clearly separated and the clarity is notable. Also great to have all the music on one disc. Mind you, iTunes is what 3 disc soun