Three years after the huge success of Symphonic Fantasies in Cologne, Thomas Böcker, along with Merregnon Studios' arrangers, Rony Barrak, and Benyamin Nuss took the tribute to the music of Square Enix to the company's home city, Tokyo. The album features the live performances of the soloists, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Eckehard Stier) and Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus (lead by Keita Matsui) once again reworked to a studio quality CD. All the original arrangements, or fantasies, of the Cologne event are present on the album, as well as Jonne Valtonen's "Fanfare Overture" and a reworked "Encore: Final Boss Suite". The confidence in the quality of this album is so much so that all promotion of the original album has been completely replaced with promotion for this new album, so re-arrangements aside, it'll be interesting to see how the two performances compare with each other.
Before I talk about the music, I feel it's important that people know where I am with regards to my knowledge of this concert. At the time of writing I am listening to both the Cologne and Tokyo recordings for the first time, and I'm going to write this review as a comparison between this album and the original Cologne recording. For those interested, check out Chris' review of the original recording for a bit more background and some more information on the musical detail of the arrangements. What do I think of the music of Symphonic Fantasies? It's brilliant. The arrangements are world class, the performances are heartfelt, and the whole project is helping bring video game music into artistic, classy territory, the treatment that the best of the genre deserves to receive.
The album opens with Jonne Valtonen's "Fanfare Overture", in a performance which is very similar to the Cologne recording. The orchestra manage to bring out the militaristic and nationalistic sound of the fanfare with flare and style, creating a fantastic opening to the album. The brass are perhaps not as powerful as the WDR Radio Orchestra's brass, but German brass players have a reputation for being incredibly powerful. Though it does offer a slightly more balanced sound overall, and I love that the woodwinds have a pretty distinct Asian sound, for example the piccolo in the quieter section in the middle of the piece has a sound that can only be achieved in Japan. The only other difference is this recording is slightly slower than the Cologne recording, allowing the listener to hear a bit more of the nuances. The applause is omitted from this album, meaning nothing gets in the way of the music.
Then we move on to our first fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, once again featuring Benyamin Nuss as the piano soloist. Right from the start, after a slower "Dearly Beloved" intro, there's already more going on in the build up at the beginning, with the harps, metal percussion, woodwinds and piano doing lots more flourishes with the recurring motifs from "Hand in Hand" and "Sora" for example. Generally there's more of a focus on individual instruments in this recording, and the quieter moments are more dramatic and subtle, though that doesn't stop the full orchestra being incredibly bombastic and effective when they do come in. While not always as prominent as in the original recording, Benyamin Nuss is also a lot more soloistic and free when he has his little cadenza bits. For example in "The Other Promise" segment, there's a bit where the orchestra drops out letting the piano right through; in this recording, Nuss slows right down and plays it like a Rachmaninov cadenza, whereas on the original recording it was fairly straight, giving this recording a more dramatic edge.
This more nuanced focus works well with the orchestra too. "Happy Holidays" is faster and much more light-hearted in this recording, as it should be. The next section, "Dearly Beloved", is very emotional, with the cello solo being particularly gushing. I personally would have liked this section to have more held back music before the big dramatic tutti, as that's how I think of "Dearly Beloved", and it would've been nice to have a breather and more of a build up, but what's there still works very well, and both recordings are very similar. Then we get the big build up into "Fight to the Death" and the big finale, with the obvious reference to Mars: The Bringer of War from Holst's "The Planets Suite". Overall it's another brilliant recording that in many ways surpasses the original German recording. The changes to the orchestration and scoring are pretty subtle and the improvements are nitpicky, but it all adds up without taking anything away from the original, and it remains a brilliant representation of the music of Kingdom Hearts.
Next up is Secret of Mana, which starts off as expected from the original recording with some very clever sound effects made by the instruments. Chris mentioned in his review of the original recording that some of these effects lost their impact compared to the live performance, such as the floor rumbling courtesy of the bass drums. The first thing I noticed about this recording was that this has been improved maybe it's my big headphones, and maybe it's helped by the fact that there's more going on, but certain effects definitely had more of a presence. It leads very well into the violin solo bringing in "Fear of the Heavens", which is taken at a more fitting slower tempo. The tempos of this recording in general are an improvement over the original Cologne recording, giving the slower more beautiful pieces more time to captivate, and the faster, quirkier and more dramatic moments more impact.
When the choir have their moments, I feel that there's more balance between the male and female voices they bring out the real ominous beauty of the game. Under the direction of the classical conductor, certain aspects of the orchestration such as the string tremolos are given more of a presence as well. This is particularly apparent in "Into the Thick of it", where the violin solo plays more soloistically and the accompanying flourishes feel cleaner and have more impact, and the faster tempo helps here too. The sound effects are back in "The Oracle", with more pronounced percussion and trombone glissandos, and even carry over slightly into "Phantom and a Rose". Once again, the Asian-influenced flute performance works really well here, and the build up to the end and reprise of "Fear of the Heavens" is even more dramatic than before. This is, in my opinion, the definitive musical representation of Secret of Mana.
Next up is Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger / Chrono Cross. After the beautiful opening, once again, the Asian flute sound in "Scars of Time" is already an improvement over the original recording. The WDR did well, but no one can create that sound like the Tokyo Philharmonic can. During the subsequent fast sections (which occur at various points throughout the arrangement, and also throw in other themes such as Chrono Trigger's main theme and "Frog's Theme"), I feel that percussionist Rony Barrak was given more freedom to really play up the rhythmic aspect of the piece, as he does more with it, and he really helps drive the faster sections of this fantasy forward, with a little help from the orchestral percussion. He also successfully provides some backing during the slower moments such as the reprise of "Scars of Time".
While listening to this piece, it's important to remember that this was the arrangement that introduced Roger Wanamo's impeccable ability to blend different melodies together into one seamless orchestral epic, which paved the way for subsequent arrangements from Symphonic Legends and Symphonic Odysseys. I personally prefer the slower tempo in the Cologne recording of "Prisoners of Fate", as I think it makes it easier for the strings to bring out the heavy emotions. Though what's present in the Tokyo recording fits with the general feel present in that version overall. A new addition right at the end of the Tokyo recording is "Frog's Theme" intertwined with the reprise of "Scars of Time", which helps to add more variation to the clever juxtaposition of tunes. Overall, I think this is, just like the fantasies before it, a definitive representation of the music of the Chrono games.
Then we come to the "Final Fantasy" (in both senses of the phrase) of the album and concert. Chris said in his review of the original recording that he found this arrangement to be lacking in flow and artistry compared to the previous three efforts. And while it's a more conventional medley-style arrangement than the dramatic wholes of Fantasy's I-III, it still remains a very enjoyable listen, perhaps in part due to the improvements shining through the most here. The "Prelude" is performed with more sensitivity in this recording, and the ending dissonant chord which felt distracting to me in the original is thankfully toned down here. Then into the "Final Fantasy VII Battle Theme", in which the team have successfully transferred a few nuances from Symphonic Odysseys into the performance, even if it is still taken at a slower tempo than the former, which I feel takes away slightly from the intensity.
The transition and interruption of "One Winged Angel" feels tighter and more flowing this time round, perhaps thanks to the audience reactions being cut out of the recording and a less random transition (and apparently the Japanese audience weren't as over excited as the European audience). The orchestra clearly had some fun with the dissonant aspects of the Chocobo theme both times it crops up, but the moments that really bring out the improvements are the battle themes. "Clash on the Big Bridge" for example is far more intense and satisfying in this recording as is "Bombing Mission", and then it's a satisfying conclusion when we finally arrive at the Main Theme. Those looking for an orchestra focused Final Fantasy epic should look no further than this. Personally, the Piano Concerto from Symphonic Odysseys is still my favourite big concert representation of Final Fantasy, as is the piano focused "Final Fantasy VII: Battle Suite", but for those of you who don't want the focus to be on the piano so much, this will most likely be a favourite of yours.
Then we come to the finale of the concert and consequently the album. "Encore: Final Boss Suite" features several of the famous final boss themes from the games explored previously. After listening to both recordings of the Cologne original and this one, the site's staff are in agreement think this arrangement and performance is a huge improvement over the Cologne original. This is mainly due to the fact that all of the pieces before "One Winged Angel" are given much more importance and therefore more impact, a shorter percussion solo from Rony Barrak, and a few additional themes. As Facebook group member Nikurad Moinzadeh said "As much as I loved Rony's percussion work, the solo in the encore was a bit too long. It crossed that certain point where something gets a bit annoying suddenly no matter how much you're impressed at first. The right timing of everything is essential and the hardest part to nail."
There's generally a more epic feel to this version as well. The choir are given more to do in "Destati", making the track really awe inspiring, and Benyamin Nuss' contribution on the piano really helps with this too. This epic backdrop also provides the accompaniment for "Meridian Dance" and "World Revolution", with both tunes fitting incredibly well into the dark, epic presence of "Destati". "Meridian Dance" in particular, normally an upbeat piece, fits surprisingly well into the darkness of the Kingdom Hearts and Chrono Trigger tunes. The most notable addition to this arrangement is "One Winged Angel", which is also intertwined successfully with other tunes, including all-new ones such as "Kefka's theme". It results in a successful new take on a piece of music that everyone loves, but as a result can feel a little too overplayed. Overall, this encore is essentially one huge epic forbidding of doom, with several famous Square Enix final boss themes blended together. The first few times of listening to this it's really unpredictable, and it's certainly possible to imagine a team of the heroes from all the games in question battling a team of all the villains from said games in one huge battle.
It's hard to believe, but Thomas Böcker and his team have improved on what was already a phenomenal concert and recording. With subtle changes to the orchestration and a more intense, full-on performance, this is in my opinion the definitive version of Symphonic Fantasies. It's worth owning this album even if you've already got the original Cologne recording, both offer a subtly different experience, with the German performers overall having a broader full orchestral sound and audience participation, and the Japanese performers giving a more intense thrill ride of a performance. The encore is a huge improvement over the original and some of the new additions and orchestrations are a real treat. This really is the definitive Square Enix music album and a brilliant tribute to the classic RPGs. Bring on Final Symphony.