Though ActRaiser's Symphonic Suite is not the first of its kind it is, in my mind, the greatest of the early video game suites released. Though Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy had both received symphonic treatment earlier, neither took a lot of chances in transmitting the material from the game to the concert hall. With the help of Kaoru Wada, Yuzo Koshiro, composer of the original ActRaiser soundtrack, offers a much more adventurous and colourful orchestration than the preceding suites and improves on the already strong ActRaiser soundtrack.
The opening medley is a very suitable start. The "Opening" section, filled with brass at their most bombastic, breathes life into a title screen that was otherwise underwhelming on the Super Nintendo. In addition to the brass, Koshiro writes a great deal of figuration in the strings and trills in the winds allowing the piece to bustle with the power and majesty it was meant to have. The opening section of the medley shrinks suddenly, although fairly smoothly, into the "Sky Palace" melody. With the much more lyrical sky palace, Koshiro commands the woodwinds to center stage. The effect of his harmonies with the timbral effect of the woodwinds creates a very sublime listening throughout the piece. The main weakness of this medley is the "Blood Pool" / "Casandora" segment, and it really is no fault of the orchestration. I did not enjoy these themes on the soundtrack, and although the orchestration is extremely effective in bringing the piece to life, I consider this melody a step below the more effective action themes in the game. The piece also seems to drop off rather suddenly at the conclusion of the movement. Nonetheless, a fine start to the suite
The Super Nintendo rendition of "Filmoa", played in the game's first combat stage, is quite possibly my favourite theme from the entire game and certainly sticks out melodically more than any piece in the entire game besides "Birth of the People". I was at first disappointed by its treatment on the symphonic suite, but have since come to like it quite well. The orchestration does take a little bit of the fire out of the driving original, but the melody is still present and in pristine condition. In addition, Kaoru Wada makes excellent use of tremolos in the strings to try and bring some of the intensity from the original track into this rendition. While this arrangement does not stand out to me like the original, it is still an accomplished rendition and is good listening.
One of the unique things about ActRaiser's Symphonic Suite is its use of intermezzi between movements that help tie the suite together. The intermezzi are based on the "Birth of the People" motif in various instrumentations. They are all fine crafts, though as twenty to thirty seconds of music cannot realistically be compared to pieces averaging four minutes. More impressive is the final rendition of "Birth of the People" and easily the best. The orchestration of one of the game's most recognizable themes gives its most prominent parts to the double reeds whose warm performance radiates the energy of life. Flute accompaniment, along with flourishes from the harp, adds a sparkling quality to the timbre, and the bubbling string accompaniment characterizes the excitement of a budding civilization coming to life. Though much more subdued in its energy, "Offering" is treated with just as much orchestral care and possesses all of the solemn hope for a bright future. My only complaint with the movement is its length. At only three minutes and four seconds I feel so much more could have been done to expand the themes into a larger experience. Still, the effect of the movement is sublime as it is, and my favourite piece from the album.
In my mind, "Pyramid ~ Marana ~ Silence ~ North Wall" is the weakest medley featured in the suite. The orchestration is done very nicely, with some especially effective percussion in "Pyramid" that helps add to the ancient atmosphere. However, for the first time on the album, Wada's transitions are not especially fluid, and the source material is likely the weakest offered. The latter moments of the movement have some really fine and full sounding orchestration which helps make this track a winner, but overall this is the track I find myself revisiting least on the album. More impressive is the medley of the game's three boss battle themes works All three themes are relatively similar, as it could be theorized that all three pieces could be joined into a medley lasting only three minutes and fifteen seconds. Koshiro transits between the three pieces in a way that is not only smooth, but also is dramatically satisfying. All three pieces unite together to create a very satisfying musical arc that few other pieces in the suite possess. The orchestration is again top notch, and brings life to tracks, that while were some of the best sounding in the original game, certainly sound more wonderful here.
If there is any track on this album that could stand up to "Birth of the People ~ Offering" in quality, it would be "Peaceful World ~ Ending". In answer to the loud, clamorous "The Beast Appears..." we are greeted with the fantastic "Peaceful World", an exquisite sampling of Koshiro's harmonic and melodic abilities. The orchestration does nothing especially noteworthy, but suits the mood very well. The transition into "Ending" is the most interesting on the album, and one of the finest. The "Ending" theme is as remarkable as well, if the presence of the first two motives from the 20th Century Fox Fanfare at the piece's opening is ignored, which judging by their only momentary presence and the overall quality of the piece following, is easy to do. The piece builds very effectively to its final conclusion, which actually ends up being somewhat of a disappointment due to how much build up is given to it, and how quickly it disappears. Still, this track is a fine close to a fine album, and one of my favourites on the album.
As one of the earliest game-based symphonic suites to really go above and beyond in orchestral colour, ActRaiser's Symphonic Suite is a fine accomplishment. My main complaint with the album is that it ends up feeling rather short, and considering that many of the pieces seem to end before they are quite ready to, it would have been nice to see some of these themes expanded on a little bit more. Nonetheless, it is refreshing to see someone err on the side of too little music than too much, thus rendering the music impossible to sit through. Thus, while Symphonic Suite from ActRaiser remains fairly conservative in the compositional arrangement of these tracks, it is one of the most adventurous in terms of its orchestration, and a compact collection of some of early game music's finest offerings.