The Tolkien Ensemble and Christopher Lee, At Dawn in Rivendell: Selected Songs and Poems from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (L.A.G. Records, 2002)
Caspar Reiff called together the Tolkien Ensemble in order to set some of J.R.R. Tolkien's beautiful songs and poems from The Lord of the Rings to music. Members of the Ensemble include Katja Nielsen, Signe Asmussen, Morten Ryeland Sorensen, Peter Hall, Oyvind Ougaard and Caspar Reiff himself. Peter Hall and Caspar Reiff are the principle composers. Morten Ernst Lassen (as Aragorn and Eomer), Kurt Ravn (as Legolas) and Tom McEwan (as Pippin) provide solo work, and the Copenhagen Young Strings and the Copenhagen Chamber Choir Orchestra offer a larger massed sound for the grander pieces.
At Dawn in Rivendell is the third album in a series of four by the Tolkien Ensemble. The first is An Evening in Rivendell, and the second is A Night in Rivendell. Christopher Lee, now reknowned for his riveting portrayal of Saruman in Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, joins the Tolkien Ensemble as a guest performer on this album, reading some of the pieces and singing and speaking the voice of Treebeard.
The Tolkien Ensemble's stated purpose is "creating a faithful musical interpretation of the poems included in The Lord of the Rings. . . ." Whether they have fulfilled their purpose or not is difficult to judge, since one person's idea of faithful interpretation may differ widely from another's. The most I, as a reviewer, can do is listen for an accord with my sense of Tolkien's work.
Certainly, the musicianship here is of the highest possible standard. All of the vocalists have superb, classically trained voices, and the instrumentalists are likewise outstanding. Christopher Lee could read a recipe for turkey tetrazzini and make it sound ominous and portentous. Nevertheless, this album gets mixed reactions from me, largely due to that elusive thing, interpretation.
Christopher Lee shines whenever he performs the speaking pieces. His voice is deep and rich, rumbling as Treebeard in "The Long List of the Ents," stern and fine as Malbeth in "Malbeth the Seer's Words." He sings splendidly as Treebeard, also, but the musical setting for "Treebeard's Song" is too discordant and modernistic for an ancient Ent.
In fact, that would be my chief disagreement with the majority of the interpretations of the more serious pieces here. Discord and atonal passages jar with the traditional feel of the words. The exception is "Eomer's Song." The instrumentation provides strong, wide sounds, full of sorrow and wrath, in keeping with the lyrics:
"Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!"
Unfortunately, it's the vocal part which fails here. Lassen's voice is too smooth and fine for the mood of the song. It needs more fierceness and vigor. I remember Miranda Otto as Eowyn in Jackson's movie, chanting at Theodred's funeral. She was archaic, her voice wild and measured at the same time. That would have been exactly right for this piece.
On the other hand, all of the hobbit-ish, cheerful songs on the album are perfect. They sound like hobbit music, with Oyvind Ougaard bringing in rollicking mirth with his accordion, and Tom McEwan providing amusing and lively percussion effects. Bilbo's "A Drinking Song" is delightful, with the "Ho, ho, ho" in the line "Ho, ho, ho, to the bottle I go" being tossed back and forth between voices. "The Bath Song" is jolly, with Ougaard's accordion being joined by a voice whistling. Even the "Farewell Song of Merry and Pippin" goes well: it's vigorous and fun, but serious, too. "We must away ere break of day, far over wood and mountain tall."
Given my overall disappointment with the serious pieces, I was dreading the final song on the album, the "Elven Hymn to Elbereth Gilthoniel." When it came, I was utterly confounded. Signe Asmussen's ethereal voice soars, achingly exquisite. She sings the words as a hymn of praise, and as a love song full of longing. Joining her is Helen Davies on Irish harp, and Tolkien would have loved to hear Davies fulfill his own vision of Elvish music, "for thin and clear and cold the note, as strand of silver glass remote" (from "Kortirion among the Trees" by Tolkien). I would listen to the album over again for this song alone.
The illustrations in the booklet which accompanies the album were done by Her Majesty, Margrethe II of Denmark. Tolkien very much liked her illustrations of his work, feeling that they were remarkably like his own drawings and paintings. The booklet also contains complete lyrics for each song and poem, and photographs in addition to Her Majesty's illustrations.
The Tolkien Ensemble has a Web site here. Christopher Lee has a Web site here.