Square Enix revealed the Piano Opera Final Fantasy IV / V / VI right before the release of its predecessor. The announcement surprised most game music fans, and not solely because of its dubious timing. After all, the three Final Fantasy titles of the SNES era had already been celebrated with Piano Collections albums. But with Hiroyuki Nakayama taking on the reigns as arranger and pianist, listeners could certainly guarantee a novel experience awaited. Piano Opera Final Fantasy I / II / III was just about perfect the producers and arranger got almost everything right. But unfortunately, quite the opposite is true for its follow-up it is flawed in just about all respects.
Album collectors will notice there is a lot of repetition of the source material between this Piano Opera and the three previously released Piano Collections. Seven of the twelve featured pieces have all been arranged for solo piano before, with pieces such as "Theme of Love", "Ahead on Our Way", and "Kefka" all making predictable reappearances. There are also no medleys this time to package other fan favourites into bite-sized bundles. This has clearly frustrated many album collectors, who feel that the new arrangements are redundant and there are plenty of other treasures out there instead that deserve to be arranged. But for others, myself included, it is not such a problem. After all, the earlier Piano Collections (especially FFIV and FFV) were simplistic and often uninspiring initially packaged with sheet music books, they were clearly more aimed for intermediate piano players than stand-alone listeners. There was therefore clearly plenty of room for superior arrangements of classic and new pieces alike. A more significant problem is that the new arrangements here aren't necessarily superior to their earlier versions...
From a technical perspective, the opening arrangement of "Main Theme of Final Fantasy IV" is much more complex than the Piano Collections version. Hiroyuki Nakayama transforms Nobuo Uematsu's modest synthetic original into a Romantic showcase filled with passionate leads, thick chords, and momentous build-ups. However, the performance will be too heavy-handed for some to enjoy and certain aspects of the arrangement seem crude, perhaps hurried; the octave tremolos at the 2:01 mark seem particularly uninspired and hardly complement the melody. While the Piano Collections was little more than a cascade of falling arpeggios, at least it conveyed the calming and spiritual nature of the original. While the arrangements of "Clash on the Big Bridge" are more comparable, Nakayama's racy approach still contrasts quite a bit to Toshiyuki Mori's more metred version. Ultimately, they had different goals. The Piano Collections version was created to be hummable to mainstream listeners and accessible to intermediate pianists. Nakayama aspired to something higher with his version, but in doing so made the audience more exclusive.
While Nakayama spent weeks perfecting the Piano Opera Final Fantasy I / II / III, it's clear that he was rushed when producing the follow-up. A rather surprising addition, the battle theme "Protect the Espers" stays much closer to the original than other additions here. But in this case, it isn't a good thing since many passages sound very clumsy and jarring when translated to the piano. The jazz influence is welcome, but not elaborated on enough to be a substantial highlight. Likewise, chordal textures and fortissimo performance prove overbearing throughout the medley of "The Red Wings" and "Kingdom of Baron". The passages at the 1:57 and 3:20 marks are gorgeous, but they're also bittersweet since they show everything the arrangement could have been. "Searching for Friends" provides some welcome solace with its dainty textures and beautiful interludes. But in yet another example of ill-conceived production, the shift to waltz form sounds unnatural given the flowing shape of the melody. The placement of these tracks on the album doesn't help, with intense and soft items being interspersed with little care for the overall album's progression.
The most satisfying items here are those that explore lighter territories. In "Sorrows of Parting", Nakayama puts the emphasis exactly where needed: the melody of the original. As he did with "The Boundless Ocean" on the previous album, he captures its rich, bittersweet shape with a nuanced performance. There are certainly some hazy Impressionistic chords and gushing Romantic arpeggiations added, but they enhance the piece rather than overwhelm it. "Theme of Love" is also just right, building from its soft, conventional introduction towards a dramatic, gushing climax. The artist also shows plenty of restraint during "Kefka", employing contrasts in dynamics and accentuation to capture the crazed nature of the villain. These two arrangements stay true to the concepts of the originals, while also clearly surpassing their Piano Collections versions. "Troian Beauty" also provides a pleasant encore. In contrast to "Searching for Friends", the waltz form this time sounds perfectly suited for the original's lulling melodies, while the lavish sections towards the conclusion help to tie together this album full of contrasts.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment on the album is the intended magnum opus "Dancing Mad". Nakayama completely fails to match the power or grace of Final Fantasy VI's organ-based finale with his piano transcription here. Despite showing such competence with Baroque repertoire on the previous album, he decided to awkwardly hybridise the gothic figures of the original with Romantic and Modernist features. The harmonisation is sloppy throughout, including simplistic counterpoint, yet more tremolo octaves, and, of course, plenty of crude dissonant chords (the opening chords are even taken straight from the previous album). The arrangement is also a mess structurally the four-tiered original is condensed down into ten minutes and many of the sections (e.g. 6:40 - 7:20) sound more like tangents than part of an ever-building whole. While the grand climax sounds as beautiful, even this disappoints in its abbreviated form here. It's challenging to successfully adapt organ pieces on to solo piano, given its massive sound and unique timbre, though a number of arrangers (e.g. Busoni) have succeeded with bold yet intricate arrangements. This version has nowhere near as ambition as such transcriptions and, indeed, Uematsu's original. As a result, it's dead on arrival.
Piano Opera Final Fantasy IV / V / VI isn't a terrible album, but it is a major disappointment. The set listings often repeat the content of earlier releases, much to the disdain of fans of the original Piano Collections. But perhaps worse, the arrangements are often coarse and the performances heavy-handed compared to the polished material on the Piano Opera Final Fantasy I / II / III. While some stick too closely to the originals, others are such deviations that they will alienate some listeners. What's more, in contrast to its segmented predecessor, the album also fails to emphasise the individuality of the featured games and the development of the series as a whole. But while the album has many flaws, it clearly got a lot right. There are a handful of stunning arrangements here, while plenty of others feature wonderful moments and will have some appeal.