On September 12, 2009, Symphonic Fantasies celebrated the music of Square Enix at the Cologne Philharmonic Hall. Under the baton of Grammy-winning Arnie Roth, the WDR Radio Orchestra and Choir, pianist Benyamin Nuss, and percussionist Rony Barrak performed a succession of complex and creative symphonic fantasias dedicated to Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, Chronos, and Final Fantasy. The sold-out concert was specially attended by their respective composers Yoko Shimomura, Hiroki Kikuta, Yasunori Mitsuda, and Nobuo Uematsu. A year later, a recording of the concert will be released by Decca in Europe and Square Enix in Japan for classical listeners and gaming fans alike, Despite the live setting, the album has a top studio quality, given all recordings were approved, edited, and mixed at the WDR Studios and subsequently fine-tuned and mastered at Abbey Road Studios. The album provides a lasting testament to the ambitious creativity of the concert and is a definitive tribute to Square Enix music.
The opening fanfare introduces the fantastical aura and symphonic colours to expect on the concert recording. Composer Jonne Valtonen presents the focal material on successive sections of the orchestra and blends traditional nationalistic elements of a fanfare with more modernist influences. The recording emphasises many of the colours and intricacies of the fanfare that cannot be experienced with a single live experience; every brass exclamation, string vibration, and woodwind flourish can be experienced at full volume without any noise or interference in this expertly mixed recording. While an original composition, its inclusion helps to both define the experience of Symphonic Fantasies and bond the subsequent symphonic game arrangements. Making evident that this is largely a live recording, there is a modest round of applause at the end of the composition.
The Kingdom Hearts fantasy thereafter is a particularly emotional experience on the album, written in the style of a full-length romantic piano concerto. The structure and arch of the whole arrangement is spot on, with diverse themes and emotions spotlighted amidst more continuous elements. Several tracks from the series, namely "Dearly Beloved", "Sora", and "Hand in Hand", make recurring appearances during the suite, and are integrated with the other additions to form a cohesive and expansive 15 minute experience. Valtonen incorporates original figures too, such as a recurring bass rhythm that initially recreates the grand yet wistful quality of Ravel's Bolero, but gradually descends into something more apocalyptic, explicitly inspired by Mars, the Bringer of War. The result could have been clichéd, but it is so exquisitely integrated that it just adds to the intensity.
The performers did the Kingdom Hearts fantasy justice and this is particularly evident in the note perfect album recording. Above the rich orchestral backdrop, pianist Benyamin Nuss's performance of this technically and emotionally demanding piece is especially impressive, whether the contemplative cadenzas based on "The Other Promise", the feathery interpretation of "Dearly Beloved", or the ferocious virtuosic passagework at the climactic "A Fight to the Death". His performance here, among those refined in a studio setting, is even more polished than his rendition at the Philharmonic Hall. The final recording captures all the drama, darkness, and romance featured in Kingdom Hearts' worlds, while also emphasising a more youthful vibe in sections such as "Happy Holidays!". It stays true to Yoko Shimomura's intentions while having so much integrity that most Decca listeners will find it spell-binding.
Perhaps the most fascinating experience on the album is a suite entirely dedicated to Secret of Mana. Valtonen recreated the spiritual yet natural concept of the game and score with some inspired experimentation. More obviously, he recreated a range of 'sound effects' during the suite — from the stormy opening to the sounds of water dropping at the end — but without relying on computers; instead he used prepared instrumental techniques, unusual choral approaches, carefully oriented percussionists, and dashes of hand-rubbing and floor-stamping to create the desired sounds. In the recording, some elements of the live experience cannot be felt — for example, the floor vibrations created by each stormy growl of the bass drum — yet the perfectly balanced recording and crystal clear quality ensure that the aural elements are even more immersive and fascinating than before.
The melodies of the Secret of Mana suite are presented in a unique manner that enhances the spiritual flavour of the experience. The opening, in particular, presents successive cantabile interpretations of "Fear of the Heavens" on violin, brass, and choir against minimal, albeit occasionally earth-shattering, accompaniment. The transposition of the original theme to a major key only enhances its uplifting quality. Subsequent renditions such as "Into the Thick of It" and "The Oracle" please with their strong melodies and quirky rhythms; including pieces like these certainly recaptures the charm and eccentricity of Hiroki Kikuta's Mana compositions without detracting from the highbrow feel. The WDR Radio Orchestra and Choir also bring out so much emotion and beauty in the interpretations of "Eternal Recurrence", "Phantom... and... A Rose", and the reprise of the main theme.
The other artistic highlight on the album is a multifaceted item dedicated to Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. Given the fantasy was conceived to have a rhythmical focus, darbouka soloist Rony Barrak is featured throughout. The well-balanced recording reflects how he provided percussive thrust to the performance while not being overbearing in terms of volume. The orchestra maintains the rhythmical edge with their brisk aggressive performances of battle themes like "Gale", "Brink of Death", and "Battle with Magus". It is especially delightful how Juraj Cizmarovic's fiddle performance restores the Celtic feel of "Scars of Time" and "Gale". The track so much momentum that the 18 minute experience flies by, both in the live setting and whenever listened to on the album recording; this is a particularly good thing for those mainstream game fans who may find many symphony-based approaches laborous.
Co-arranger Roger Wanamo was responsible for many of the intricacies of the Chronos suite. He fitted themes from both games together like he was completing a jigsaw puzzle. It is particularly impressive how the main themes between the games are often unified and play simultaneously, and how dabs of the descending chord progression from "Battle with Magus" make appearances throughout. At points, Wanamo even offers renditions of three or four themes all at once and the final result sounds surprisingly natural. Inclusions such as "Frog's Theme" and "Gale" sound surprisingly mature and convincing, despite the nature of the original themes, while the elegaic string-based performance of "Prisoners of Fate" is the most tear jerking moment in the entire album. Once again, Valtonen and Wanamo were once again faithful to the game and Mitsuda's musical inspiration, and their offerings are timelessly preserved in the album recording.
The final item on the album is dedicated to Final Fantasy. This item proved one of the most challenging to arrange, due to the sheer volume of original material available and the huge expectations of fans. Rather than maintain the artistic focus of earlier arrangements, Valtonen chose to adopt a more conventional medley-based approach using fan favourites from the series. The individual parts are fantastic. The flanking choral arrangements of "Prelude" and "Final Fantasy" are spiritual and nostalgic, while "Fighting" and "Bombing Mission" feature dramatic melodies and brutal chants. Even better, Final Fantasy VI's "The Mystic Forest" elaborate upon the impressionistic feel of the original to create some gorgeous dark timbres. The two renditions of "Chocobo" were surprising too, but both are quite amusing given the nature of the original melody and its slightly dissonant harmonisation.
Though the individual sections are entertaining, the Final Fantasy suite will be confusing to those listeners expecting something as refined as the preceding suites. The arrangement transitions through each theme somewhat abruptly and desperately, resulting in many transitions from loud to soft and a rather chaotic feeling overall; this is very different from earlier suites where each track felt interconnected and part of both a dramatic arch and cohesive whole. Particularly troublesome in the album is the way "One Winged Angel" is intentionally interrupted with the Chocobo theme. While this feature inspired the intended reaction in the concert hall — complete excitement followed by groans and laughs — such a gimmick only has a short-term appeal and disturbs an otherwise flowing studio album, especially when the loud audience response is still included.
Despite the interruption, "One Winged Angel" is not revisited in the physical album release, since the encore featuring this theme and three others have been left as a digital exclusive. This omission is understandable for artistic reasons, since the encore generally felt like an additional fan service featuring mostly straightforward choral performances, and the main theme of Final Fantasy is a more fulfilling way to close the album and represents Square Enix's music better as a whole. However, from a fan-centric perspective, this omission is extremely disappointing given the album provides a tease of the insanely popular battle theme and then fails to bring the goods... Overall, the Final Fantasy medley clearly doesn't work as well outside the live setting, but it is still an effective mix of drama, ambience, and humour overall. It is an excellent realisation of the composer's expectations and most fans will love it.
Symphonic Fantasies ambitiously introduced a symphony-based format to game concerts. With its perfect recording and beautiful presentation, Decca's album provides the definitive way to relive the concert and will also be highly appealing to new listeners around the world. Thanks to the excellent offerings of composers, arrangers, and performers, the results are mostly highly appealing to gamers and musicians alike. Each performance takes listeners on an extended journey through the atmospheres, emotions, and melodies of their respective series. In addition, the first three arrangements stand in their own right as artistic achievements worthy of classical attention. While many disagree, it's disappointing that the Final Fantasy medley was inspired more by fandom than artistry, ensuring the album doesn't quite enter the realms of perfection. Nevertheless, the Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, and Chronos fantasies are the finest and greatest orchestral spectacles to have featured in game music. In addition, the package offers an incredible amount for such a cheap price in the Decca edition and offers a definitive tribute to Square Enix. The album therefore certainly deserves a perfect score and an unconditional recommendation.