Howard Shore's scores to the three Lord of the Rings movies are a classical masterpiece in their own right, and as such I don't mind hearing them played by a different orchestra. While I prefer the originals on the whole, this set has some very nice things to recommend it. The best part is that you get instrumental renditions of the end credits song from each film. My favorite is "Into the West," from The Return of the King, with a cello replacing Annie Lennox's vocal performance. I really disliked Lennox's ugly, popified performance of the song, but I thought that the melody and orchestration were beautiful, so I could not be more delighted to hear the song performed by a cello, with all original orchestration intact. That one track is worth $20 to me.
I'm coming back to this review after five years to note that there is another track on this CD which I like better than the original: The Return of the King/Finale. Firstly, no Viggo Mortensen singing. If you're like me and think Mortensen's Aragorn didn't quite cut it, this is a plus. His thin voice is replaced here by a rich, deep, majestic voice, filled with gravitas. (I do prefer Renee Fleming's version of the Arwen Revealed theme that follows, but the singer here does a good job as well.) But what really grabs me about this track is when, after the whistle and flute play the pensive Shire theme, the fiddle comes in. I'm not sure if it's the mix, which puts the fiddle (and drums) more forward, or if its the playing, which seems to me to have more expression, more attack, but the version on this CD blows me away. The original is a wistful, short quote of the theme. This version remains wistful, but somehow also adds energy, so that it becomes almost a defiant ode to beauty in the face of change and destruction. The way it rises up and up into the theme . . . Somehow, for me, it captures Tolkien's ideas so well, that sense of weight, of depth in his work, that idea of fighting the "long defeat" and the sudden, unexpected reversal, the eucatastrophe, the happy ending whose sweetness springs in part from the pain of what had come before.
This is not to take away from the originals at all, nor, of course, from Howard Shore (who after all wrote the music that moves me so much). I own the Complete Recordings of all three films. But yeah, this particular track I, personally, like better than the original.