01 - Fantasy Overture (Circle within a Circle within a Circle)
02 - Final Fantasy VI (Symphonic Poem: Born with the Gift of Magic)
03 - Final Fantasy X (Piano Concerto): I. Zanarkand
04 - Final Fantasy X (Piano Concerto): II. Inori
05 - Final Fantasy X (Piano Concerto): III. Kessen
06 - Encore: Final Fantasy X (Suteki Da Ne)
07 - Final Fantasy VII (Symphony in Three Movements): I. Nibelheim Incident
08 - Final Fantasy VII (Symphony in Three Movements): II. Words Drowned by Fireworks
09 - Final Fantasy VII (Symphony in Three Movements): III. The Planet's Crisis
10 - Encore: Final Fantasy VII (Continue?)
11 - Encore: Final Fantasy Series (Fight, Fight, Fight!)
It seems like such a long time ago that I wrote about Spielemusikkonzerte's Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo. Partially, I think, because so much has happened in just a few short years in terms of the appreciation of video game music as an art form. When I reviewed Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo, I called it one of the best live performances of video game music in the world and expressed the feeling that it was representative of the positive direction game music was headed in, especially if more shows like it were put together. Every positive aspect of that album also applies to 2015's Abbey Road Studios-recorded Final Symphony, which is easily among the all-time best arrangements and performances of game audio ever produced. The reverence for the source material is matched by the boldness with which each movement of the symphony twists and arranges the music and wraps the listener up in its completeness.
To be clear, though, this is not passive listening music—not for the first few sessions, at least. There's a richness here that attests to its concert hall roots; a depth that demands your full attention. There's a sense of motion and of storytelling in this music only partially derived from the Final Fantasies VI, VII, and X it is culled from. This is music designed to be listened to in a hall, in front of an orchestra, as you close your eyes and savor it. While of course the album can be taken anywhere, I do strongly urge you to set aside the time simply to sit and enjoy it and it alone.
Much as its predecessor, Final Symphony opens with an original piece of music by Jonne Valtonen, an overture called "Circle within a Circle within a Circle." While this track isn't from any game represented, it is a rousing introduction which seems to tug at the same parts of the brain that the Uematsu and Hamauzu pieces do. It feels cyclical, and does a great job introducing you to the style and mood the rest of the performance upholds.
"Symphonic Poem: Born with the Gift of Magic" is the main portion devoted to Final Fantasy VI, an eighteen-minute musical narrative that weaves in and out of so many of the game's memorable themes in so expert a fashion that I'm hard-pressed to really identify many better treatments of the material. I'm particularly in love with the final seven minutes or so, a glorious, rousing climax centered on the iconic "Terra's Theme" and the end credits piece from the game.
Final Fantasy X's representation comes primarily in the form of a three-part piano concerto, "I. Zanarkand," "II. Inori," and "III. Kessen," as well as an encore of "Suteki da ne." As with the Final Fantasy VI suite, the arrangement is superb. Fans of piano-heavy work will find plenty to love here, too, with a lively and complex performance that not only captures the essence of the original, but also explores the themes more broadly with the instrument. "Kessen" is particularly exciting, featuring a flat-out astounding performance from each part of the orchestra. The final battle theme becomes the main focus of this portion, and the piano captures that otherworldly finale with heart-fluttering skill.
Like X, Final Fantasy VII is represented by four pieces, "I. Nibelheim Incident," "II. Words Drowned by Fireworks," "III. The Planet's Crisis," and an encore, "Continue?" Perhaps because my first experience with Final Fantasy was VII, this part of the performance is easily my favorite. It's also the longest sequence, with the first three parts clocking in at around 14 minutes each, plus the encore. The third movement is also the climax of the entire album, and it feels like the most epic, with the highest stakes and the most time dedicated to building up to the grand finale and an absolutely gorgeous treatment of "The Planet's Crisis" that is, at least to this longtime fan, profoundly moving.
The final encore, "Fight, Fight, Fight!" is a great, exciting way to take out the album. "The Decisive Battle," "Those Who Fight Further," "Those Who Fight," and more are represented here, melded as deftly as any of the lengthier pieces. The symphony concludes (literally) on the same tone that the overture began it with, and while I lament the relative brevity of this track and would have loved to have seen more battle themes represented, it's merely a case of what is there being so good that I wanted more.
The performances, as is to be expected of the legendary London Symphony Orchestra, are universally and across-the-board stunning. Each and every nuance of the entire orchestra has been conveyed to recording with skill, certainly in no small part due to the recording taking place at the also-legendary Abbey Road Studios. The album feels big — indeed, it runs over 90 minutes — and at every level justifies the big names behind it.
Much like with its predecessor, Final Symphony represents the absolute top of the mountain in the world of video game music arrangement. It's such that none of words in the three drafts of this review that I wrote can really capture why I think it's so special. No familiarity with the source material would be necessary to appreciate the complexity and passion this music brings with it, but for those with even the slightest attachment to these themes, I can't urge you to go out and buy this album fast enough. Between Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo and Final Symphony, attending one of Spielemusikkonzerte's incredible performances in person has absolutely found its way onto my bucket list. This exceptionally-produced recording may not match the majesty of being in the live audience of one of these concerts, but it's as close as one can get to experiencing the genius of it at home.
Now we just have to convince them to do Final Fantasy IX.
Reviewed by: Stephen Meyerink