It’s so good, it makes me angry. No, not the jealous kind of anger. Though there is some jealousy in there too. This is the kind of anger that comes from being wrong — from when you thought there wasn’t much room for improvement, but clearly there was.
Piano Opera FF I/II/III was a much-needed addition to the canonized FF music library. But FF IV/V/VI? I was flabbergasted when I first saw the announcement. “What’s the point?” I thought to myself. Sure, the old individual Piano Collections for IV, V, and VI aren’t terribly advanced in their arrangement (particularly IV and V). But they have their own charm, and they feature a good track selection, and hey, they sound great! “Who does Nakayama-san think he is?” I continued to ponder, “trying to improve upon music that’s already there?!”
At first I mitigated my frustration by reminding myself that each of the three Super Famicom FFs have so many more songs in their OSTs that were never arranged for piano. So, as long as Nakayama didn’t double-dip, I’d be okay. Then they announced the tracklist: over half of it overlapped with the previous Piano Collections. Now that’s just uncalled for … right? … wrong.
The re-done songs from the SNES games: Troian Beauty, Clash on the Big Bridge, FFIV Main Theme, Theme of Love, My Home Sweet Home, Kefka, and FFV Main Theme (Presentiment / Ahead on Our Way), all are so much more enjoyable as a listening experience, and so much more impressive from the standpoint of music theory and technique … there’s just no going back at this point.
And then there are the new selections. The most obvious and most necessary one, of course, was “Dancing Mad.” This track runs over 10 minutes in length, so it’s hitting all four parts of the piece. This seems to be a big trend lately, doing full-on arrangement and performance of Dancing Mad (in one night this past January I saw two bands do it, one of them being Uematsu’s own Earthbound Papas). Nakayama knocks out of the park, full concerto piano style, never missing a chance to decorate or do other weird hand-contorting things that I’ll never be able to pull off (more on this at the bottom).
FFV was probably the weirdest of all the old FF Piano Collections, so I was really pleased with these new arrangements. Among them, “The Sorrow of Parting” takes the cake for most impressive. I had nearly forgotten about this melody. “My Home, Sweet Home” wins the award for “I had every reason to believe this would sound awesome, and sure enough, it does.” Yes, that’s an award category.
Strangely absent from the old piano collection, Red Wings ~ Kingdom Baron from FFIV was an obvious choice for arrangement, and Nakayama does an outstanding job with this one. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album, in fact. Just as good, and just as necessary an arrangement, “Searching for Friends” from FFVI. How that got missed the first time around, I’ll never know. But it’s a fan-favorite that really needed a piano solo version. I gotta say, I love it.
What could make this album better? A few more tracks couldn’t have hurt, especially if they had done some town/battle medleys like on I/II/III. Also, licensing Benyamin Nuss’s performance of “Serpent Trench” to tack on as a bonus track couldn’t have hurt, as that’s one of the best piano renditions of VGM I’ve ever heard in my entire life.
Right now, as I finish typing up this review, I’m placing an import order for this album’s sheet music. But I don’t know why I bother. Sure, I was able to master most of the pieces from the old IV/V/VI, and I am advanced enough as a pianist that I can play a few tracks from each of the other piano collections (sans XIII — that one has really been a struggle for me!). I already have the sheet music for Piano Opera I/II/III in my hands, and there are a few songs that are simple enough that I can wrap my puny hands around them (FFIII’s “Crystal Cave” is where I’ve made the most progress). Listening to this CD, I doubt there’s a single track I’ll be able to really play without error and at tempo. This is honest-to-Uematsu triple-A concert piano work. I’ll have to appreciate this one as more a bystander and less a participant.
Oh, and one more thing about this album. The liner notes, specifically. You open the booklet, and what do you see? Photos of Uematsu and Nakayama at a freaking elementary school. On the playground, in the music room playing piano and writing notes on the board. That’s extremely clever marketing if you ask me. You wanna tug at the ol’ nostalgic heart strings? You got me. I played these games when I was in elementary school. I also started playing piano at that age. It’s like the photos are saying: “remember those good times? We do too. That’s why we made this album.” I can’t read the Japanese liner notes, but I can’t help but think Uematsu associates these games with a simpler time, a time of youth, as well.