Square-Enix Piano Collections pt.2: the Other Shiro, Mr. Hamaguchi

May 17, 2012 at 1:45 pm (Editorials, Soundtracks) (, , , , , , , )

Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997 to critical acclaim around the globe. It was hailed as a landmark game that was more or less revolutionary in its utilization of the available technology. The music was received just as well, with the audio capabilities of the PlayStation bringing out new elements and dimensions to Nobuo Uematsu’s music.

Where, then, was the Piano Collections album?* With the previous games, the Piano Collections album was released less than a year later. Perhaps the OST was deemed strong and fleshed out enough on its own that a Piano album was not necessary? Whatever may have stalled it, it didn’t stop the release of Final Fantasy VIII two years later, which was released to more widespread acclaim. And not even a year after that, a “Piano Collections Final Fantasy VIII” was announced and published. Like the reprints of the previous albums, this album (and all hereafter) were also released with the CD and sheet music separately. The first-press of the CDs came in a slipcase, while the later re-issues come in regular jewel cases without the slipcase.

There was a lot of speculation as to why there was no piano album release for “FFVII”, and at this point there is still no clear answer. What we do know is that they went on and released an album for “FFVIII”, and it was fantastic.

Headed up in arrangement by Shiro Hamaguchi (who actually did some orchestral arrangements for both Final Fantasy VII and VIII), the album kept up to the standards of the previous Piano Collections albums, but still managed to be unique in its presentation. The arrangements were sometimes straightforward, but more care seemed to have been taken to ensure that these songs sounded like complete piano pieces in their own right, altogether independent of their OST counterparts. Songs like “Fisherman’s Horizon” and “Ami” sounded right at home on the piano with their arrangements, while songs like “Find Your Way” and “Silence and Motion” were transformed and varied to give amazing depth what was simply atmospheric in the game. Songs like “Ending Theme” and “Shuffle or Boogie” sounded a little forced in their arrangement, but were still great in the context of the album. Each track was fleshed out, with no sense of emptiness found in Satou’s more simple Piano Collections tracks. The series was in good hands.

Final Fantasy IX rolled around, and it too received a Piano Collections album. Taking the difficulty up another notch, Hamaguchi made some pretty impressive arrangements of “Eternal Harvest” and “Vamo’ alla flamenco”. He also left some other songs to keep the simple side like “Melodies of Life”. Much more of a romantic flair was shown on this album, and it still seemed to follow naturally from his previous Piano Collections album.

And then? Final Fantasy X was released on the Playstation 2 in 2001, and within year, it too received a Piano Collections album, this time under the arranger and part-composer Masashi Hamauzu. But more on that later, because if we skip forward a bit more to 2003, we finally hit the release of “Piano Collections Final Fantasy VII”, which was the last Piano Collections album arranged by Hamaguchi.

In keeping with the work from “VIII” and “IX”, but still showing a progression, Hamaguchi  puts in his share of straightforward arrangements like “FFVII Main Theme”, and his expansive arrangements like ”Aerith’s Theme”. But then he takes the battle tracks to a virtuosic level with “Those Who Fight” and “J-E-N-O-V-A”. The performer Seiji Honda masterfully plows through the songs with force and delicacy where called for, making for immersive tracks that one might have not imagined translating well to solo piano. Together Hamaguchi and Honda do the impossible and make it work seamlessly. As if to prove this point, a few of these tracks were even used in the soundtrack for film “Final Fantasy VII:Advent Children”, were this arrangement of “Those Who Fight” was used as the backdrop for one of the battles. And it was spectacular.

Shiro Hamaguchi had a great run with the Piano Collections series. Not that there was ever any doubt, given the spectacular orchestral arrangements he did for the Final Fantasy series. His piano solo pieces are self-contained, mature, and sound very ‘full’. Many tracks can be straightforward, but it’s not quite the same straightforwardness found in Satou’s Piano Collections, partly due to the evolution of source material quality with the shift to the PlayStation. And when Hamaguchi takes his arrangements further, he does an amazing job of transforming each track into a full piece with depth and a story. Satou brought Final Fantasy to piano. Hamaguchi gave it a home.

Now, let’s backtrack a few years to “Piano Collections Final Fantasy X”, around the time when the music of Final Fantasy was changed as a whole.

*I should note that there was at the time sheet music for the official score. After this point, there were two different sheet music books for each Final Fantasy game; the “Official Score Book” or “Original Soundtrack Book”, which features beginner to intermediate arrangements, and are very faithful to the OST counterparts. My focus is on the “Piano Collections”, which feature higher level arrangements, as well as accompanying CDs (sold separately).

pt.1: Shiro Satou’s Triad
pt.2: the Other Shiro, Mr. Hamaguchi
pt.3: Ten to Ten-Two
pt.4: Back to Basics
pt.5: Branching out
pt.6: the Other Collections
pt.7: Looking out ahead, filling the gaps
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