Square-Enix Piano Collections pt.6: the Other Collections

June 16, 2012 at 6:18 pm (Editorials, Soundtracks) (, , , , )

2012 marked the 25th anniversary of the Final Fantasy series. One of the earliest announcements for the celebration of the milestone was the long awaited “Piano Opera Final Fantasy I-III”. Officially falling into the standard Piano Collections category, the title change likely referred to ‘opera’ as the plural form of ‘opus’ which usually means a musical work. The release finally gave attention to the earliest entries into the Final Fantasy series, which were skipped over in the Piano Collections series.

Having a standard length and regular release with the separate sheet music book, “Piano Opera Final Fantasy I-III” only contained a few tracks from each game, and two medleys spanning them all. Arranged and performed solely by Hiroyuki Nakayama (who performed songs from the “Kingdom Hearts Piano Collections”), the album was very uniform in style, which was a good or bad thing depending on the listener. Nakayama’s arrangements and performances were advanced in level, on par with some of the more difficult Piano Collections, but he was also considerably less schmalzy and romantic; each note and phrase was well defined and distinctive. His dynamic changes were carefully calculated and exact, and the sustain pedal only used where needed. The result was a very technically accomplished album, but to some it also felt a bit more rigid and bare. Nakayama certainly did not push any borders with the release, keeping it very safe, which was still enjoyable.

Before the album was even out, an announcement was also made for “Piano Opera IV-VI”, which was met with considerably lower excitement, primarily because the tracklist overlapped heavily with the previous Piano Collections albums. Despite this, many noted that this was a huge opportunity to improve those older arrangements, which were pleasant but very simple.

The album was also arranged and performed solely by Nakayama, but in many ways had a very different feel from the previous Piano Opera album. Notable was the inclusion of more emotionally infused tracks such as “Theme of Love” and “Sorrows of Parting”, which received lush arrangements and very sensitive performances, something altogether missing from the previous album. This perhaps was due to the compositions themselves, but also likely gained a hand from the stories that gave the pieces emotional context, which were not as strong or prevalent in the first three Final Fantasy games. This also gave some of the other tracks more character, which might have otherwise fallen into the same patterns as the previous album. Still, Nakayama kept the arrangements safe, which particularly hurt the 10-minute epic “Dancing Mad”, which received an almost note-for-note transcription with some added decoration. While it was still a decent arrangement, it (and a few other tracks) felt like a missed opportunity.

For now, “Piano Opera IV-VI” is the last entry into the Piano Collections series. There are however, other official albums that ought to satisfy those who wanted more (even though there are more than enough Piano Collections albums filling different styles that will please listeners of any background). I will make mention of them here.

First is “Piano Pieces ‘SF2’”, an arranged album for SaGa Fronter 2. The first SaGa games were released in America as “Final Fantasy Legend”, although they later were released under their proper SaGa names. One could however still see the series as a spiritual cousin to the Final Fantasy series. SaGa Frontier 2’s score was composed by Masashi Hamauzu (who gave us the wonderful “Piano Collections Final Fantasy X”, so this release should definitely be noted by any who enjoyed that album), and he also arranged its piano album. This album did not have its accompanying sheet music released, but many of the arrangements were simple enough that talented players could pick them up by ear. Some arrangements were meant for two players to play simultaneously, which was never seen in the Final Fantasy Piano Collections (although there is other official sheet music book dedicated to this). The re-release of the album also contained an expansion on “Rhapsody on themes from SF2” as bonus tracks at the  end of the album, which were fully orchestrated.

Another mention goes to the two “Pia-Com” albums. Short for “Piano x Computer”, the albums tribute to early video games, including a few songs from early Final Fantasy entries. The first album was arranged and performed solely by Keita Egusa, who utilized straightforward arrangements at an intermediate difficulty. The second album also included Masato Kouda and Hiroyuki Nakayama (who brings in his lush romantic arrangements), bringing some more variety. Sheet music books for these albums were also never released.

A full hat comes off from me to Benyamin Nuss, a piano prodigy from Germany who decided that his first album release under a major classical label was going to be a tribute to Nobuo Uematsu. Before the album, he gained some fame in the video game fanbase by playing at “Symphonic Shades” and “Symphonic Fantasies”. Some of the arrangers also arranged pieces from these concerts, although we do see a familiar face  in there as well: Shiro Hamaguchi, who did “Piano Collections VII”, “VIII” and “IX”. A word of warning though; the album could be a tough listen, and was the least accessible out of all of the albums that I’ve talked about over the course of this series coverage.

Fashioning the arrangements from heavy classical and modern piano influences, the style on “Benyamin Nuss plays Uematsu” was completely different from every other album, particularly with its relentless dissonance in certain parts and complete transformations of most songs. Indeed, many of them are completely unrecognizable to one who isn’t carefully studying the music itself. “Waterside” is a great example of this, which at first listen sounds like a random onslaught of fast arpeggios and scales, completely different from the original, which was more romantic and melodically driven. What happened? Well, the arpeggios and scales were used to conjure up images of water and flowing; it arguably evoked images of a waterside far better than the original. But the original melody was still to be found, with a slightly different tone, way in the background behind the fluttering high notes. To some, the arrangement was too large of a departure from the original, but there was no denying (once one sees how the arrangement came about) the artistry and attention to detail that went into the piece.

And so much of the rest of the album was. It was certainly no casual listen, but to one who was willing to take the time to find and appreciate the intricacies and interpretations of the original works, it was a very fresh experience, and probably the most rewarding purchase that one could make. Anyone with an ear for classical music or anyone who studied music would be wise to pick up the album (the sheet music is also available at monsrecords.de). Everyone else should be prepared to be perplexed, and possibly even turned off.

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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