It’s about time!
When Square started their Final Fantasy Piano Collections series, they started at IV and generally moved forward sequentially (VII got skipped, but was then recorded prior to the Advent Children film, and we’re still waiting on XII). I personally advocated for an album of this nature to Uematsu himself, and then Jayson Napolitano (of OriginalSoundVersion) suggested it to the Square Enix Music directors. Somehow, the people at S-E negotiated with Uematsu’s company (Dog Ear Records) and the Piano Opera series was born.
In fact, as I write this review, the final touches are being put on Piano Opera Final Fantasy IV/V/VI, and for all we know, they may continue this trend into later entries of the series. I’m fine with this, so long as they don’t spend too much time revisiting songs that already have piano arrangements on other albums. As for this album, it’s all new (minus a track or two that arranger/performer Hiroyuki Nakayama first released on Dog Ear Records’ “pia-coms” series). So, I’m satisfied.
As a collector, I would’ve been fine even if these arrangements were bare-bones, vanilla transcriptions, of an even lower arrangement finesse than the old IV and V piano collections. Just as a collector and completionist, I’ve desired this album, regardless of quality, for over a decade. So it’s just a bonus, for me, that the arrangements are any good.
And they are good. They’re formulaic, but it works. The formula, of course, is this: start vanilla, repeat with decoration, repeat again with significant change (modal shifts, new counter-melodies, etc), end with a bang. This is the pattern for almost every arrangement here, and that’s just fine with me!
The album neatly cuts the three games into their own sections: 1 through 5 (minus track 3) are FFI, 6 through 8 are FFII, and 10 through 13 are FFIII. Tracks 3 and 9 are medley tracks that combine all three games; the former is a town medley, and the latter a battle medley.
The first track, “Prelude ~ Opening,” covers the Prelude arpeggio music and what the theme that is also known as the “Main Theme of Final Fantasy.” Both motifs have been arranged on other FF Piano Collections, and up to this point, my favorite arrangement was the end credits FFVIII track that begins with the FF Main Theme and ends on the prelude arpeggio. And while I still love that track for what it is, especially its original sections made for FFVIII, this new track from Nakayama finally gives justice to these “series” themes. It feels like a proper 25th anniversary tribute. It’s big and bombastic, much like Nakayama’s performances on the Kingdom Hearts piano albums, but it doesn’t get lost in itself.
The “Main Theme” as it appears on this album, then, isn’t the bridge-crossing series main theme, but instead the theme of the first game: that is, the world map music. And it is glorious, my friends. WOW! After a bit of fanfare at the beginning, Nakayama launches into the melody with an exuberance expressed appropriately with 16th-note arpeggios all over the place. He also bends the melodic structure a bit with right-hand octave drag triplets, to offset the otherwise straightforward and stately tempo of the track. He then drops the song off in a nebulous diminished chord around the 2 minute mark, and then allows it to rebuild itself; almost as though he fell into that dreaded marsh dungeon and somehow came out alive.
The Town Medley is great primarily because it so handily hops from one town theme to the next, and then back, and then further forward, that you get lost in a blur of 8-bit nostalgia, and at any given moment its easy to forget which FF you’re recalling. For as calculated and exacting as my nostalgia tends to be, this forced blur is a welcome reprieve.
Before moving to FFII, Nakayama-san visits two more themes from FFI, probably the most celebrated games from the game that started it all. “Mount Gulg” is sufficiently bouncy and decorative for what I would have wanted in an “ideal world” arrangement. With sheet music in hand (available thanks to Yamaha), I intend to learn this one. Then, for “Matoya’s Cave,” Nakayama chooses to play with the tempo, starting (and occasionally resuming) with a slow pace, and then picking up to its memorably fast pace. It’s amazing that this little one-room non-dungeon has had such a lasting impact on FF fans, primarily because of its ridiculously catchy melody. Nakayama drags the song through hell in back, milking it as best he can without making it sound kitsch. I am pleased. Very, very pleased. And in terms of song selection, I don’t think there’s anything else from FFI that I really wanted or needed in piano solo form.
FFII’s Main Theme was first arranged for the “piacom” album, but it’s still great. This melody sticks with me most prominently from Risa Ohki’s vocal version. Remember those vocal albums, “Pray” and “Love Will Grow”? I loved those albums, and every time I hear FFII’s main theme, that’s where I go in my mind. The piano arrangement oozes a sort of melancholic grey/pink mist that makes me think “hey, maybe the game isn’t that bad.” At the very least, I could deal with some time spent wandering its world map.
At a personal level, the “Rebel Army” arrangement is probably my least favorite track. Not because it is, in itself, a particularly bad arrangement. It’s just that, compared to the very first arrangement of this song (see “Symphonic Suite Final Fantasy”), nothing can compare. That was the defining moment for that album with the choir and all, and nothing can top it. I just feel like this song is too big for one piano. I kind of … in a strange way … wish there were no piano arrangement for this, and they’d picked another song to arrange from FFII instead. Not like that game has a huge list of hit songs, but maybe something unexpected would have been good. “Oh, you mean like Tower of the Magi?” Why yes, hypothetical conversational partner, just like that! “Well that’s good, Patrick, because you can listen to a Tower of the Magi piano arrangement while having this conversation in your head!” Oh really? That’s great news for me!
Tower of the Magi isn’t a song I even remembered from FFII, but hearing this arrangement brought it back. Certainly one of Uematsu’s better “forgotten” compositions, the cascading melodic ascents and descents, all done with decorative chromatic runs, is expressed extremely well on a piano. The voicing of the two hands are great as well, especially when those booming octaves are happening in the bass. This is very much a “concerto”-style piece, akin to some of Benyamin Nuss’s arrangements on his tribute to Uematsu piano album.
The battle medley, obviously more exciting than the town medley, merges together the three games’ standard battle themes, and some boss music is in there as well! Nakayama holds nothing back in this one, stretching his own performance capabilities to the limit in the arrangement. This is one piece I’ll not likely be able to replicate at home, as I don’t have the skill. But it’s not just the expert performance: the arrangements still hold enough polish that they aren’t just drowned out mega-chords thrown together in quick succession. The limitations of the 8-bit hardware are represented best when those lovely little sixteenth and thirty-second runs appear. Great, great work here. I bet Uematsu was well pleased by this medley.
And now, Final Fantasy III. This is the hardest part for me to talk about. You see, while I’m thrilled with the songs they chose to arrange, there are about 40 original compositions for FFIII (excluding jingles), and it’s reasonable that FFIII could have had its own piano arrangement. And even without its own arrangement, it’s worth noting that this album’s full length comes in at just under 50 minutes. Sizeable, yes, but there was plenty of space to expand and keep the collection on a single disc. I could name at least five more songs just from FFIII that I’d like to see arranged for piano. But, again, I’m still happy to have anything, so I’m trying not to be lame about this.
“The Boundless Ocean” was, to me, an unexpected choice. Also covered by Risa Ohki’s Pray / Love Will Grow vocal albums, this song has a haunting familiarity, and the piano does a great job calling that memory back. I would describe this arrangement as somber and thoughtful, but certainly not “cerebral.” There’s nothing cold about this arrangement, or this performance. It is full of feeling, but it is not as bright as the “sea” themes from, say, the Dragon Quest series. Uematsu wrote a great piece here, and Nakayama capitalized on that to the fullest. I can’t wait to start learning to play this piece.
“Crystal Cave” is absolutely perfect. This piece as Uematsu originally wrote it just screamed “make me into a piano solo arrangement!” So here we are. Nakayama keeps the steady, rolling 6/8 going throughout almost the entire piece, with one or both hands working full-time just to keep the rhythm going. The shaky (“tremolo”) chordal stuff to highlight the song’s true, simple melody is great as well. Seriously, this arrangement is perfect.
Less so, sadly, for “Eternal Wind.” I was looking forward to this arrangement, and it still does its job pretty well, but that countermelody that appears in the original 8-bit version seems to have been lost. Yes, Nakayama gives us some decorative work in the upper octaves, and it’s a bouncy melodic pattern. But it’s not the exact pattern from the original version of the song, and it’s not running through 90% of the arrangement. This arrangement reminds me more of what they did with the DS version of the song, and while it’s still a great piece of music, it’s missing the components that made it great.
Surprisingly, the arrangement for “Elia, Maiden of Water” found on Piacom II did not make the cut for this album. So we jump right to the end with the final boss music. I’m glad this happened, because as good as that battle medley is, there’s just too much great battle music to try and fit it into one track. Nakayama’s performance is as large, as room-filling, as one would hope for it to be.
I can’t wait to hear the IV/V/VI Piano Opera, and I’m generally pleased with this album. One can always want more, and being the rabid consumer and collector I am, you shouldn’t be surprised to see that my chief complaint about this album is that it doesn’t have all the arrangements I want it to have. Nonetheless, this is a stellar album, of the same high quality I’ve come to expect from other FF piano albums.