Piano Collections Final Fantasy X
I was never a fan of the Final Fantasy piano albums. With the exception of VI's, which did feature several adaptations of substance but still took no risks, these albums seemed to aspire to nothing, taking a simplistic, pop-minded approach to piano arranging that led them straight into an ivory quagmire of banality. Even at their most competent, I still found them tedious, colorless recreations of score material, their lack of experimentation and rigid adherence to standard "melody + accompaniment" textural formulas betraying the quick-buck intent of these productions. The albums offered no creative reinterpretations of the material contained, simply the short-lived novelty of hearing FF themes in a slightly different instrumental context. But it would be unfair of me to single out Final Fantasy as the lone cash cow hawking spoiled milk. Piano VGM typically exhibits all the professional mien of a pre-adolescent piano recital. A problem seemingly endemic to the piano-arranged VGM album as a micro-genre is the arrangers' consistent failure to acknowledge timbre and texture as essential components of piano composition, as if all that writing for piano entailed were lining up a melody with some broken chords that you could get away playing with three fingers to the hand. Whether a defect of amateurism or unfamiliarity with the keyboard, the results of this myopic focus on clear melody and simple harmonic accompaniment materialize in dull arrangements as two-dimensional as the color scheme on a piano's keys, unlit by the rainbows true arrangers know lie hidden between the black and whites.
Masashi Hamauzu knows they're there, and draws shades of light and texture across the keyboard as if piano hammers struck bands on the color spectrum rather than strings. In his hands, the music of Final Fantasy X is not turned into the sort of fodder that makes parents beam when their 10 year-old plays it to a capacity crowd of eighteen. Taking a stand against the inertia of tradition, Hamauzu has fashioned an album of true concert pieces, and made his forebears to look the slowest children in the class. Finally, here is VGM piano music that actually sounds like piano music. Of course, there should be no mystery in Hamauzu accomplishing this. His protean brilliance in composition in the original Final Fantasy X soundtrack and piano-arranging debut with Piano Pieces "SF2" ~ Rhapsody on a Theme of SaGa Frontier 2 gave clear notice of his capabilities. But even the SaGa album had a touch of the transcription about it; the pieces were not reinvented for the piano so thoroughly as they are here.
Consider, for example, the centerpiece of the disc: the arrangement of the "Song of Prayer" theme. Hamauzu takes this simple, unremarkable modal theme and builds from it a sprawling, spectral nocturne, a nightscape of flickering half-lights that pays direct homage to Debussy in its archaic harmony and gossamer thin texturing, openly referencing the water textures of his "Reflets dans l'eau" and, in the swelling climax, the pealing modal homophony of "The Sunken Cathedral". The original theme is ever-present, and yet, transformed by Hamauzu's impressionistic legerdemain, unrecognizable as anything presented in the score. Indeed, the aesthetic of impressionism is clearly the most significant source of Hamauzu's fundamental influence, evident in his harmonic sense and gestural figures, his concern for the infinite gradations of tone color the piano permits, and above all the organic nature of his writing. Each piece breathes with a measureless, extemporaneous flow only those who truly understand the piano can achieve.
After all, what good is an arranged album, especially a piano one, if no attempt is made to translate the music into terms idiomatic to the instrument? Hamauzu steers smartly through the Scylla and Charybdis of slavishly preserving even the most non-idiomatic effects in defiance of the chosen instrument's capabilities, and stripping the original piece down to the barest of recognizable elements, far below the point of interest. He has the acuity to recognize where a direct pianistic reproduction of some instrumental component of the original piece is not possible, and invents an analogous texture that fills the same musical space. Rather than attempt to cram an orchestra into the soundboard for "Final Battle", essentially a piano concertino to begin with, Hamauzu concentrates and expatiates on the thematic material present in the original piano part and fashions a rhapsody that preserves the spicy, angular harmonies of Bartok and Ravel but attenuates its rhythmic insistence, interpolating in extended passages of surprising, even subversive lyricism. For "Besaid Island", Hamauzu takes the contour of the melody as point of departure and glosses it with a brush dipped in note paint, as one would a variation on a theme. How Hamauzu conceived of turning an abstract bit of chill-out electronica into a delightful, soaring melody with the wit and poignance of a Poulenc chanson is a bit of alchemy I could grow old in a day pondering. More sensible simply to enjoy it. The transformation of "Travel Agency" from the original piano piece to this Piano Collections piano piece is rather less dramatic, but no less charming. New interstitial passages, a further developed bass line, and a more considered tempo add to the static beauty of the original, creating a still-life painting for piano. Every track of Hamauzu's composition delights with its ingenuity, and adapts the original score material to the most ideal pianistic permutation imaginable, his intentions impeccably executed by pianist Aki Kuroda.
Junya Nakano is sadly represented on only one track, but better one masterpiece than ten pretenders. For "Guadosalam", an oneiric slice of electronic ambience in the original score that would seem to defy any attempt at acoustic transcription, Hamauzu pulls off an upset, improbably translating every nuance of Nakano's work into pianistic terms. The rich percussion reinterpreted as a subtle bass ostinato, echo-delay pizzicato preserved as a soft treble staccato figure, and fragmentary melody expanded, displaced, and threaded circularly through the middle with no obvious beginning or end, create a piece wholly new in its own right, yet parallel to the spirit of the original. The piece is the antithesis of melody and accompaniment, a creature of morphing colors and multiple fields of motivic activity, shifting in and out of focus like a camera lens resolving objects across different planes of distance.
Of course no album is perfect, and this balm's captive fly is the regrettable but understandable inclusion of many of Uematsu's main themes. While I would have been more than happy to see Hamauzu disregard these and put his powers to use on more of his and Nakano's material, I'm sure The Fans would have made their displeasure known, possibly with the aid of large wooden bats. To Hamauzu's enduring credit, he does what he can with hopeless schmaltz like Tidus' and Rikku's themes, "Yuna's Decision", and the inescapable "Suteki da ne", displacing rhythms and refining the rote diatonic triads of the originals with harmonic largess. No clowns have ever worn such fine tuxedos, but one can only do so much with melodies as insipid as these, and their arrangements don't quite generate enough velocity to escape Uematsu's gravity well of musical platitudes. What wonders might have followed from arrangements of Nakano's "Illusion" and "Luca", or Hamauzu's own "Splendid Performance" are left to personal contemplation. He does however coax out the latent pianistic potential within "Via Purifico", with undulating colors of figuration and judiciously placed melodic embellishment twining flesh and muscle around the bones of Uematsu's embryonic arrangement. The result is a full-bodied piece that sweeps the dull mechanicalness of the original away with broom bristles culled from Chopin's piano strings. The "Ending Theme" brooks no significant complaint, but as a relatively straightforward piano reduction of Shiro Hamaguchi's orchestral arrangement, it's the only track lacking Hamauzu's voice. Still, not every sentence need end with an exclamation mark.
The Final Fantasy X Piano Collections offers a kind of music that's never been heard on any game music album, piano or no, and puts the prior body of piano-arranged VGM to shame. To encounter music so literate and utterly free of juvenilia within the game music realm is all too rare. It's efforts like this album that have the potential to rescue game music from its maligned status as the bastard cousin of film music, and earn the parvenu some well-deserved recognition. Bravo Hamauzu. Whatever Square's paying you, tell them I said to triple it.
Final Fantasy X was groundbreaking on nearly every level — it featured the most complete and diverse soundtrack to date, amazing graphics, a brand-new battle and level-gaining concept, and voice actors. The story was great, the characters likeable, and the gameplay enjoyable. The hype for Final Fantasy X was definitely met in the game, but the popularity of Final Fantasy VII would never be met by future (or even past) titles. There is something that Final Fantasy X lacks that other titles don't; a definitive soundtrack. Well, I was a bit disappointed in the album, and though that's something else altogether, it of course affects the Piano Collections album.
Masashi Hamauzu took it upon himself to arrange Final Fantasy X Piano Collections, creating both positive and negative traits to the album. Overall, Final Fantasy X Piano Collections' greatness is debatable, but Hamauzu knows the music that he helped with remains faithful in tone, mood, and melody to the Original Soundtrack. Hamauzu takes some pieces and arranges them beyond recognition, does the exact opposite on others, but still manages to retain beauty, mystery, yearning, and bittersweet feelings in each of his renditions.
1) At Zanarkand
"At Zanarkand" is as every bit as melancholy, yearning, and soothing as its Original Soundtrack version. Without a doubt, I was sure that this track would be featured on the album, and I wasn't expecting anything too grandiose, mainly because it's difficult to take an already-effective piano score and make it better. "At Zanarkand" is short of any kind of revolutionary arrangement, as Hamauzu only really adds a few notes here and there to lengthen the track. The ending is wonderfully pianissimo, which is the perfect closure to an already quiet, nostalgic piece. As with tracks such as "The Successor" from Final Fantasy VIII Piano Collections, "At Zanarkand"'s beauty lies not in its arrangement, but in its performance.
2) Tidus' Theme
I loved "Tidus' Theme" from the Original Soundtrack, and I quite enjoy Hamauzu's arrangement of the track as well. "Tidus' Theme" stood out in my mind because it was different from previous heroes' themes. "Tidus' Theme" is a quiet, relaxing little gem that forces out the other side of Tidus. I also feel that it puts emphasis on Tidus' affinity with water, which is a soothing, tranquil element. That being said, "Tidus' Theme" is great because of its emotional capacity, not in the actual track itself. The track doesn't stray far from the Original Soundtrack version at all, and so, quite like "At Zanarkand," the magnificence is brought out in Aki Kuroda's performance. Hamauzu did a fantastic job with the harmony, creating a flowing, silky ease about the piece that is enhanced by the sporadic, chiming sixteenth notes and runs. "Tidus' Theme" is a beautiful and melodic piece.
3) Besaid Island
This is one of my top Piano Collections tracks. The Original Soundtrack version of "Besaid Island" featured a wide range of various instruments, and Hamauzu has done a fantastic job in merging the various parts of the track into one creative, enjoyable piano arrangement, here. "Besaid Island" raised a few eyebrows with several listeners at first, as the melody seems somewhat indistinguishable. However, the melody grows stronger and stronger as the track progresses, and Hamauzu makes use of opposite elements. Opening in a bouncy nature, "Besaid Island" starts off as a staccato, almost quirky little piece before it rolls into flowing eighth and sixteenth notes with a pedaled harmony, to evoke the tranquility that surrounds Besaid. A very enjoyable piece indeed; Hamauzu works wonders on what I consider to be the most enjoyable arrangement on the soundtrack.
4) Song of Prayer
: "Song of Prayer" is a beautiful contribution to the album. I was originally curious as to how Hamauzu would portray the less-than-well-received tracks from the Original Soundtrack, and after listening to the splendid grandeur of "Song of Prayer," I was pretty much floored. "Song of Prayer" starts out recognizably enough, but soon enough it escapes from the original mold and breaks into a completely new part of the track that should've been in the Original Soundtrack. Powerful chords and a ringing melody ensue as the track progresses, with the right hand expanding to higher reaches and bell-like melodies, before backing down into Original Soundtrack spirits again. "Song of Prayer" has an amazing ability to flow majestically and powerfully, as if capturing the true essence of the aeons themselves. "Song of Prayer" is fantastic because Hamauzu completely disregards the original's harmonic chord progressions and throws in something new, beautiful, and more exciting. The Original Soundtrack version, a rather short track that left little to the imagination, has been transformed into a noble and gloriously long arrangement.
5) Travel Agency
Sometimes you wonder just how and why certain tracks end up on arranged albums. "Travel Agency" is one of them. Following two brilliant arrangements, "Travel Agency" falls dramatically short of anything spectacular; instead, it induces a sleepy, serious vibe with its uncreative, boring arrangement. Kuroda does the best that he can with this less-than-impressive rendition of an already unmemorable track, but even his talented fingers can't bring life to this simple track. The Original Soundtrack version was pianistic enough in that it was quiet, rolled, and echoing, but Hamauzu can't make it more bearable for the piano with this repetitive, droning "arrangement," if you want to call it that.
6) Rikku's Theme
Lighthearted and cute, not unlike "Tidus' Theme," "Rikku's Theme" remains similar to its Original Soundtrack version. "Rikku's Theme" is passable because of Kuroda's performance and Hamauzu's pressing melody. You'll be skipping over "Rikku's Theme" soon enough, because although it's not horrible, there's nothing vivacious or original enough to keep this arrangement in mind. It's played with a crisp hand and a dynamic harmony, but it lacks the true essence of Rikku herself. That, however, can be blamed on the Original Soundtrack version.
"Guadosalam" was a hardly memorable theme to begin with, but Hamauzu's done a fantastic job with its arrangement. There's a mystical, impressive subtly to "Guadosalam" that captures the character of the city and its denizens to a key. The melody becomes more vibrant around the one minute thirty mark, when the harmony grows stronger and more prominent. "Guadosalam" has an amazing ability to flow from quiet to loud in the same reverberant, soft style. It's interesting to note that "Guadosalam" is immensely repetitive, because oftentimes, that's frowned upon in the Piano Collections world. That just goes to show how good the piece really is in its nuance; it's played so well and arranged so gently that it makes good to what is considered a dangerous trait.
8) The Thunder Plains
I wasn't a fan of the original, and I am not a fan of the piano arrangement, though it's definitely an improvement over the Original Soundtrack version. "Thunder Plains" achieves a quirkier, cuter personality than "Rikku's Theme," which is a bit curious if you sit down and think about it. "Thunder Plains" is sharp, crisp, and light, and it does a good job of retaining that bouncy, airy tone throughout. However, "Guadosalam" was that once-in-a-lifetime "good" repetitive, and "Thunder Plains" is not. Like with "Travel Agency," Kuroda attempts to bring out the best with that he's given, especially during the musical interludes, but the lack of depth in "Thunder Plains" is too prominent to shadow, and "Thunder Plains" remains to be one of the lesser tracks of the album.
"Assault" starts off the same way as "Besaid Island," "Thunder Plains," and "Rikku's Theme" did: staccato, bouncy, and crisp. However, it soon dives into a more harmonic and powerful arrangement that works so well. Like "Final Battle" from the Final Fantasy IX Piano Collections, "Assault" takes its time to build up dramatic power and the in-battle feel conveying excellently in tracks such as "Fighting" from Final Fantasy VII Piano Collections. Hamauzu's arrangement of "Assault" is genius — combining staccato elements with powerful runs and light harmony, he creates an immense arrangement, one that is extremely well put-together and fantastically combined in its different elements. "Assault" is special as well because it makes it obvious that the arrangement is better than the pianist's performance. The only fault I can see with "Assault" is that the ending is something of a disappointment, as it lacks in dynamic ability, and it is somewhat unexpected, too.
10) Via Purifico
I liked the whole Via Purifico thing for some odd reason, so I liked its theme as well, but it is definitely safe to say that the Piano Collections version of "Via Purifico" outstrips the original. "Via Purifico" uniquely conveys the mysteriousness and cryptic air of its original without getting all "Mystic Forest"-y on you. Hamauzu arranged the piece in a faster, more effective style, which smoothes over the crinkles and folds from the original. Don't pass this one up, it's a real inconspicuous little gem which is very enjoyable to listen to. The somber melody is perfect for the track.
11) Suteki da ne
"Suteki da Ne" is good. It is better than "Eyes on Me," yet it is not better than "Melodies of Life." "Suteki da Ne" adheres strongly to the original, rendering somewhat less artistic than the coffee shop-esque "Eyes on Me." The one problem I have with this arrangement, is that it doesn't quite seem to know what it wants to do. Simply hearing the piece is enjoyable and beautiful, but if you listen to it, "Suteki da Ne" gives off an almost jarring tone to its melody. The vocals in "Suteki da Ne" was amazingly bittersweet and nostalgic, and this piano arrangement expands upon that, adding a bit more depth and drama to the original version. Overall, "Suteki da Ne" is good, and it's a bit better than the original version, just not as good as the fantastic orchestrated version.
12) Yuna's Decision
This was a beautiful Original Soundtrack piece, but for some reason it's not as effective on the piano as I'd thought it would be. Though still retaining its beauty and poise on the piano, "Yuna's Decision" lacks depth to its arrangement, making it a somewhat difficult track to review. The melody in "Yuna's Decision" is a treasure; it breaks and connects, and flows and stops, with such stunning ease that the whole piece is tied together in a gentle stream of tranquility. Whether this piece blows you away or if it just appeases your senses, one thing's for certain: it's a hell of a lot better than the Final Fantasy X-2 Original Soundtrack's "Calm Lands" theme.
13) People of the Far North
Hamauzu accomplishes the impossible with this stunning rendition of "People of the Far North." Chilly and powerful, "People of the Far North" is a brilliant transformation from the tribal drums and simplistic overall sound of the original. "People of the Far North" is a fantastic background theme, echoing the harsh climate and rigid lifestyle of the Ronso tribe to perfection. Hamauzu's ability to take a rather unmoving track and turn it into this mellow, wistful piano piece is mind boggling. We have a truly powerful and heartfelt arrangement here. It has a resounding beginning, an emotional belly, and a fantastic, quiescent ending. Whether Kuroda is banging it out with the delicious, fantastic low harmony, or simply gracing the higher keys with a flowing right hand, "People of the Far North" is beautiful and amazingly versatile.
14) Final Battle
Yet again, Hamauzu demonstrates his versatility with this powerful arrangement of "Final Battle." The best bit about "Final Battle" is the fact that Hamauzu took a loud and relatively untidy track, and transformed it into something flowing, powerful, and clean. The powerful dynamics and performance rivals that of Final Fantasy VII Piano Collections' "Fighting," with its amazing dynmaics, an excellent use of the pedal, and the sharp, fast tempo. "Final Battle" is the one piece where Kuroda truly shines, bringing forth an amazing amount of ease and emotion to the piano. "Final Battle" is a masterpiece.
15) Ending Theme
"Ending Theme" is a fantastic closure to Final Fantasy X Piano Collections. Unfortunately I can't just leave it at that, so: "Ending Theme" is wonderful in that not-really-arranged-but-the-pianist-did-a-great-job way. However, the fact that "Ending Theme" adheres so strongly to the original is what makes it so alluring and powerful. "Ending Theme" from the Original Soundtrack was already a fantastic piece, and Hamauzu's transcription of it over to the piano echoes the brilliance of the original. "Ending Theme" retains the same rolls and dramatic flow, but just in a more majestic way. It is just a wonderful, emotional piece, and there's a great bit of it that's immensely enjoyable. Don't pass this one up.
There's something iffy about the Final Fantasy X Piano Collections. When you sit down and listen to each individual track, taking in what it has to offer, you'll be able to hear brilliance. But overall, a simple listen to the entire CD proves to be less enthralling. Why is that? I can't be too sure. Perhaps it's because Final Fantasy X's soundtrack offered only one or two completely stunning tracks, whereas games like Final Fantasy VII and their soundtracks offered a larger sum of more enjoyable themes. Hamauzu really does make a job out of this soundtrack, as his arrangements are, 97% of the time, bordering upon amazing. Final Fantasy X Piano Collections is an emotionally driven soundtrack, filled with power, nuance, and impression. And importantly, Final Fantasy X Piano Collections' tracks sound as though they were meant completely for the piano. But a casual listening of the piano evokes a rather constant, similar sound, which is nothing really new at all. I would suggest you pay attention to each track when you listen to this CD, for only that will truly get Hamauzu's flexible talent across.
Composed by Junya Nakano, Masashi Hamauzu & Nobuo Uematsu
Performed by Aki Kuroda
Song of Prayer
The Thunder Plains
The Way of Purgation
Suteki da ne (Isn't it Lovely?)
People of the Far North