“You feel the foreboding, too? Don’t worry, it will be all right.”
– Schala, from Chrono Trigger (Orchestral Arrangement Review)
“Time, which has been divided, will be unified again now.”
– Schala, from Chrono Cross (Orchestral Arrangement Review)
In a surprise move that pleased many fans, Square Enix announced a Chrono orchestral concert tour in Japan earlier this year, followed shortly by news of studio orchestral recordings for both Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. And for those wanting the best of everything, Square Enix also packaged the two albums together with a third disc of bonus music in an oversized box set with a minimalist art style. In this way, as well as many others — arrangers, performers, even price point — the Chrono Orchestra Arrangement Box mirrors the release of the NieR Orchestral Arrangement Special Box Edition.
However (and this may come as a surprise given my well-advertised love of NieR’s source compositions), I think the Chrono Orchestra Arrangement Box is superior in nearly every way.
Because my compatriots Neal and Jo reviewed the individually published Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross orchestra discs, respectively, I am going to only briefly touch on them. It is frustrating how short each one is, especially relative to the disc times on the NieR and NieR Automata orchestra discs (the Chrono discs come to about 35 minutes each, while the NieR discs come to about 50 minutes each). Even so, the eight tracks on each Chrono disc are surprisingly enjoyable and thoughtful medleys. For example, arranger Mariam Abounnasr snuck brief crossover references in her work — in Chrono Trigger’s “Corridors of Time / Schala’s Theme,” you can find the melody for “The Girl Who Stole the Stars.” Similarly, on the Chrono Cross disc, just at the end of “The Girl Who Stole the Stars” (before the second portion of the medley), Abounnasr gently brushes in a touch of “Schala’s Theme.” This kind of thematic work across both discs makes for a great unifier.
I am particularly pleased to find “Bound by Fate” (once translated by fans as “People Seized with Life”) arranged on the Chrono Cross disc. The original piece is basically a synthesized orchestra track, so if any one song really needed to be here, it’s this one. And for those of you who know the context — it’s a dramatic battle theme — the music becomes all the more powerful. Again, I wish more songs had been selected for these arrangements and we just had more of everything. But if we must be limited to this amount, and it is selfish of me to beg for more given the hard work each arranger and all the performers put into this, I am glad that this song made the cut.
But let’s get to the bit that my fellow reviewers did not get to tell you about, dear reader. This is the “Piano Duo” disc. For the sake of quick comparison, the bonus disc for the NieR box set features three chamber music arrangements and one incredible harp solo. Here, the four “piano duo” pieces feature arrangements by Takuro Iga and Yui Morishita. Iga and Morishita also perform in these arrangements for three of the four tracks, with Kumi Tanioka (of FF Crystal Chronicles fame) being Morishita’s paired pianist for track 3, and Akio Noguchi working with Iga on track 2.
Now, some of you may be wondering, “why does he keep using the word ‘duo?’ I thought it was called a duet?” Fair point. Musical terminology in this regard has seen some change and overlap over the centuries, but generally a “piano duet” refers to two people sitting at a single piano and is sometimes called “piano four hands.” In contrast, the “piano duo” features two pianists, each with their own respective piano. This latter form allows each player more freedom: full control of the dampen and sustain pedals, full range of the keyboard, and the opportunity for the arranger to allow for notes to be played twice over simultaneously or twice in very quick succession, in a way that simply cannot occur with one piano. So to be clear, we are talking about two pianists, each with their own piano, busting out grandiose performances of truly mind-blowing arrangements. Even for someone like me who has been listening to piano solo arrangements of VGM for decades (mostly thanks to Square Enix), adding a second piano was all it took to send my head spinning.
Of the four arrangements featured on this surprisingly long disc (25 minutes for four tracks? Yes, please!), the only one that truly requires the duo format in my opinion is the opener, “Scars of Time.” The original piece is just so dense with instrumentation, I cannot imagine how a single pianist, with their measly two hands, could capture it all. But double up your firepower, and bam! Melodies, harmonies, counter-melodies, and that pulsing rhythm that so many orchestras flub in live attempts (I have written about that elsewhere): all of it is executed with perfect precision by Iga and Morishita. Before they even reach the fast section, however, the two actually repeat the slow prologue, not only to extend that portion of the song, but to explore different ways to accentuate parts of the melody with harmonies, particularly with drag triplets and descant harmony. Once things pick up around the two minute mark, the energy is as fast and frenetic as one would it expect. One of my worries about this arrangement was that the pulsing rhythm would not survive, but when you can switch the work across two pianists, it seems trivial. My other concern was that the nuance of the lead melodic lines, originally carried by violin and flute, could not be faithfully recreated by pianists. Of course, the pitch-bending decorations are impossible, but equally impressive decorations are certainly doable. Morishita, who arranged this particular duo, nails it with marvelously swift arpeggios, grace notes, and duplicated notes across the two pianos. After playing through the traditional composition, then slowing down for some freeform reflection, Iga and Morishita return with more gusto than ever to top off this beautiful arrangement with a recapitulation of the main melody, employing even bigger and bolder auxiliary harmonies than before — and if you listen to the audio sample, this is exactly what you will hear. The final minute of this arrangement absolutely blows my mind wide open. Bravissimo!!
As noted above, the other three songs selected for piano duo arrangement could have been successfully arranged for piano solo without much trouble. So with a second piano, what do you do? Make things really pretty and really interesting, that’s what! “Schala’s Theme” is a slow, meandering arrangement that passes melody and harmony across the performers in short bursts. Arranger Iga didn’t take many risks with this arrangement, holding to the chord progression and melody like one might cling to a mother for safety. But the elaboration is still beautiful, and I’m just happy to have six minutes’ worth of this beautiful theme.
Morishita’s pairing with Kumi Tanioka for “The Girl Who Stole the Stars” is absolutely lovely and manages to capture so much of the source composition with two pianos. This particular arrangement makes great use of full-octave melodic duplication, as well as lovely tremolos scattered throughout. When Morishita guides Tanioka, and the rest of us, on a deeper exploration of the theme about two minutes into this recording, things go from beautiful and familiar to beautiful and new. Given the Chrono duology’s focus on Schala (and her other incarnations, about which I will say nothing more because spoilers), hearing this arrangement is like discovering yet another new side to the tragic heroine and larger-than-life figure.
Finally, in an arrangement that surprised me most of all, Takuro Iga outshines partner Yui Morishita in speed and technical prowess. While “Scars of Time” was an impressive arrangement, Iga takes the Chrono Trigger theme and cranks it up to 11. Listening to this is like if your mother wakes you up, and you roll out of bed and land on a motorcycle/cyborg named Johnny, and he drives you at near light speed straight into a glowing blue pendant, which transports you to a magical floating island, but a little boy and his cat run by you and you can’t get your footing right, so you fall right off the edge of the island to your certain death — and then you land on the Epoch! You barely climb into the cockpit before ramming straight into Lavos’ shell. Then you get out, and with a sudden-if-brief slow down in Iga’s arrangement, Lavos offers you a cup of tea, and you sit and drink and have a talk about your journey. But once you finish that last drop of tea, Lavos knocks the table aside and ushers in that epic final battle, now sped up in-game by a factor of 10 just to make menu-based combat feel more challenging than real-time combat. Yeah, that’s how I feel when I listen to this one. This is a super-charged, world-tour quality piano arrangement and performance for one of the most celebrated melodies in all of game music.
So…yeah. Is it worth paying an extra 20-ish dollars for a fancy box and a little piano arrangement disc? Yes. Mostly because the “little” piano arrangement disc is surprisingly full of life. It complements the orchestral arrangements quite nicely and serves as a surprise capstone to the listening experience.
Having said all that, I leave the reader with two questions worth pondering. 1) With this being the 20th anniversary for Chrono Cross and nearly the 25th anniversary of Chrono Trigger, could all of this Chrono hype finally bring us a new entry in the series? 2) Having established this duology “orchestra box” formula, what might Square Enix try this with next? (Personally, I would love an Ivalice duology focused on FFT and FFXII…)