Who is Benyamin Nuss? He’s a young, prodigy pianist that has been performing concerts in conjunction with the WDR Radio Orchestra in Germany for a few years. He’s also an avid gamer and a big game music fan. Who is “Uematsu?” Well you had better know; Nobuo Uematsu is the composer of the vast majority of the Final Fantasy series, alongside many other RPGs.
These two musicians struck up a friendship, and one of the results of that friendship is this album. Published in Germany by Deutsche Grammophon (one of Universal Music’s classical labels), the album features music from Final Fantasy VI through IX, Blue Dragon, and Lost Odyssey. It also features two very special original compositions, which I’ll touch on at the end of this review.
Let’s start by dissecting the Final Fantasy music, since we’re all familiar with it. Nuss performs two pieces from FFVI. One is “Terra’s Theme,” which has been recorded as a piano solo piece before. The Benyamin Nuss version is, well, bigger. Harder to play. Very interesting, but a little overwhelming at times. More importantly, though, is the arrangement for “The Serpent Trench.” After repeated listens, I keep going back to this track, so I guess that makes it my favorite. Truly, this one is a work of art. The source material was overlooked for 15 years, having never really gotten a good arrangement before. Well this arrangement is guaranteed to blow you out of the water. I want the sheet music so I can attempt it myself. It’s fast and frantic and wonderful, but occasionally serene, just like the experience of navigating the trench in-game.
All the FFVII music gets grouped together in one massive medley track (total time: 9 and a half minutes!). There are boatloads of FFVII melodies alluded to in this very large medley. There are so many that even a long-time Uematsu fan like myself would probably fail to identify every single melody. Of course, some of that is because the arrangements here are very “high-form” arrangements. In other words, the source material takes a back seat to excessive decoration. Usually, I can’t stand when piano albums do this, but in the case of Mr. Nuss, his performances are so mindblowing that it really doesn’t matter. This guy could probably take some sort of concerto-level “variation on a theme” version of Mary Had a Little Lamb and make it sound brilliant. So when you have source material as good as FFVII, expect something great from this track. You’ll still recognize most of what you hear, and you’ll certainly enjoy it. When the “popular” themes peak through the clouds of high arrangement (FFVII Main Theme, Aeris’ Theme), it’s a great experience.
Two strange choices of arrangement for FFVIII. The first is “Liberi Fatali.” In other words, the big opening choral/orchestral track. How exactly does one get that to piano solo without losing what makes the track so great? I submit that it’s impossible. Case in point: we have some of the best arrangers, and a prodigy pianist, doing this particular recording. And, interesting as it is, it just cannot top the original. I can hardly even want to hear this arrangement when the original is begging to be heard again. But I will say this: for someone attempting to do a piano solo of this brilliant piece, this arrangement is probably “as good as it gets.” Of course, it’s ultra-bombastic, as it has to be to re-create the effect of clashing harmonies from different instruments (and voices).
The other FFVIII track, “Where I Belong,” I would refer to as double-arrangement. This is because the source track from the OST is actually a patchwork of motifs from FFVIII. This arrangement is on par with much of the old Shiro Hamaguchi-arranged FFVIII Piano Collection, though perhaps a little harder for an “intermediate” level pianist to pull off. Again, cheers to Nuss for being so darn good at what he does.
The sole FFIX piece, “A Place to Call Home,” is one of the more simple arrangements on the disc. The performance and style reminds me very much of Louis Leerink’s work on the official FFIX Piano Collections CD. I’m a tad disappointed that Benyamin Nuss’ talent wasn’t put to more use, as there are a number of other FFIX tracks I’d loved to see arranged. But then I go back to Serpent Trench (FFVI) and all is well again!
As great as all this FF stuff is, I have to say that the most unexpected pleasures came from listening to the Mistwalker games’ piano arranges. Lost Odyssey gets 3 tracks in the opening, and Blue Dragon gets more than any other game with a total of 4 arrangements. The Lost Odyssey arrangements are all very straightforward, very close to the original tracks. I think many people will find themselves enjoying them.
But it’s Blue Dragon that I want to focus on especially. There is something strange and wonderful about them. I have peers in the tiny world of game music critiquing that really didn’t like these tracks (especially “Waterside”), but I’ll have to part ways with them on this point. The arrangement of Waterside is little more than an insane series of extremely fast arpeggios, with some other bits of decoration to fill out the performance. Does it sound anything like the original piece? No, not really. Only a trained ear could pick out the similarities. The arrangement is, at times reminiscent of Hamauzu’s self-arrangement of “Song of Prayer” in FFX. Frankly, I think it’s genius. I absolutely love it. Kudos to the arrangers, and to Nuss, on this one!
The other Blue Dragon tracks are equally impressive. The “Main Theme” is a big, rich wall of sound at most times, and the added decoration only helps accentuate the march-like melody. “My Tears and the Sky” is a lengthy (six minute) arrangement: very strange, with a ton of clustered chords and plenty of swinging back and forth between pianissimo and fortissimo. “Release the Seal” is a battle theme, and Nuss’ performance makes this battle theme feel more at home with Uematsu’s FF battles than the original ever did.
Now then, let’s quickly discuss the dedication tracks. Nuss pens and performs his piece, “Nobuo’s Theme,” obviously dedicated to Uematsu. I’ll be the first to say that Benyamin Nuss is clearly a better performer than a composer. But with that statement out of the way, the music is in no way “bad.” It’s actually a fairly catchy bit of melodic pop-ballad. Perhaps even more interesting, however, is “Years & Years.” The piece is written by Uematsu, and dedicated to Nuss, but it’s being performed by Nuss. “Hey guys! I’m playing a song written for and dedicated to me! Enjoy it!” It’s a strange situation, but again, the music is beautiful. I suspect the song’s title refers to the fact that young Benyamin Nuss has “years and years” ahead of him to keep pumping out great music.
You hear that, sir? We want a sequel to this album!
To the other readers: you’ll like what you hear on this album; I can almost guarantee it. Do not be turned away by what is easily the lamest, cheesiest cover art imaginable. There is a near-universal appeal to the concerto-style piano that Nuss demonstrates. He is a true young master of the piano. So if you like Uematsu, and you think you could get into piano solo (whether or not you ever were into it before), you owe it to yourself and to other fans of game music to pick up this album.