“Many Thanks” from Hamauzu-san to his fans. That’s what this album is, really: a thank you album for those that have supported him over the years. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been at the very least exposed to Hamauzu’s works. Whether it be his grassroots compositions (SaGa Frontier II) or something more mainstream (FFX or Dirge of Cerberus), you’ve probably heard the beautiful impressionist work of Masashi Hamauzu before.
The first half of the album is an original portion. These 11 tracks are strung together to make Hamauzu’s “Im Abenteurgarten” (the translation is rough, but Falcom fans might like to think of it as “In Adventure World,” but replace World with Garden). As a piano solo section, many fans of the SF2 Piano ~ Rhapsody on a Theme album will recognize similarities in the style. I also picked up some melodic and rhythmic similarities from Hamauzu’s past works. Tracks 9 and 10 have themes similar to those in SaGa Frontier II, and “Kaki” sounds like FFX’s “Raid” (particularly, the Piano version that Hamauzu himself arranged). These songs are primarily piano pieces, and they are definitely simple, short, and beautiful. Some may be annoyed by the brevity of each piece, but students of modern music should note that Hamauzu’s short themes are similar to some works of Debussy and Ravel.
Now comes the part that VGM fans should really be interested in. Unfortunately, it’s not all I had hoped for it to be. Let’s journey together and find out why.
The largest number of songs come from a soundtrack that I found to be one of Hamauzu’s most dull in his career. That’s right, Samurai Legend Musashi is here, and Hamauzu arranged a full five tracks from the game. The arrangements are decent, but the original composition with which Hamauzu must work is what kills the experience for me. My ears just weren’t that interested. I had enjoyed the original section of the album more, up to this point.
And here comes a real disappointment. I was looking forward to some excellent, new arrangements from SaGa Frontier II. It didn’t happen. Track 17, “Zufall,” had already been made into a piano arrangement on track 12 of the Piano~Rhapsody CD. The only difference? Some minor changes in arrangement, including the choice to play the song an octave lower. That was about it. “Botschaft” is the same story as “Zufall,” with track 5 from SF2 Piano~Rhapsody being the original. It’s like…hello, SF2 Piano~Rhapsody is my favorite album, I don’t want new recordings of the same stuff…give me something legitimately new to hear!
“Interludium” makes some minor progress. Though this song was also featured on the Piano~Rhapsody album as a piano duet (see track 11), this version gives the melody to a flute instead of a second piano. The flute performance, by the way, is breathtaking. But still, Hamauzu was just being lazy in re-arranging songs he had already arranged for piano.
The final entry in the SaGa Frontier II collection is a bit of a shock. The piano is joined by a string quartet, which is a nice change of pace. If you check the OST’s tracklist, you’ll note the absence of any “Feldschlacht V.” The numbered battle themes, according to the tracklist, end at IV. This arrangement uses a familiar, oft-used melody from SF2, and is perhaps a reference to some of the near-end-game music, hinting at a foreshadowing of the final boss. Now, an actual arrangement of the song “Todesengel” would have been nice too…but we can’t have everything we want.
Here comes some more disappointing news: only one arranged track from Final Fantasy X. Are you kidding me?! Some of Hamauzu’s finest work comes from Final Fantasy X, yet we only get one song?! When I first saw the tracklist, I was quite upset. And I still am upset. But there are some mitigating factors. For starters, Hamauzu already arranged fifteen songs from FFX (most of them being his compositions originally), released on the Final Fantasy X Piano Collection. “At the End of the Abyss,” fortunately, was not one of the fifteen aforementioned pieces, so what we have here is a new and exclusive arrangement. It is beautiful, in a simple and fleeting way, which is what I love about impressionist-era music: it is fleeting. It floats, it glides, and it dare not linger long enough to become mundane. Fans of FFX will immediately recognize the piece as the final dungeon music. It’s classic, and the piano works great with the string quartet in this piece.
Two more original pieces dot the landscape of this album. They are not a part of the “Abenteurgarten” collection, and instead appear as a bonus selection of original music (perhaps later to be used in FFXIII? At this point, no one can say for sure). Hamauzu put a lot of work into these pieces. Both feature the full range of instruments on the album: piano, flute, and strings. “Die Wahrheit” is a favorite of mine. I do hope they get worked into a game at some point…and as I said earlier, there is hope that these songs could appear in Final Fantasy XIII.
Some bland, sappy songs come next. Like Musashiden II, FFVII’s “Dirge of Cerberus” is not a particular favorite of mine (be it game or soundtrack). For these two pieces, we are back to solo piano. These arrangements really helped to flesh out the melodies of these songs, and I did enjoy them a good deal. At the very least, they gave me a renewed interest in some of Hamauzu’s less-well-received works.
Hamauzu’s follow-up work to SaGa Frontier II was Unlimited:SaGa, which boasted a unique mix of orchestra and techno. Sadly, we only get one arrangement from this OST, and it’s an arrangement of the all-too-simple, traditionally tonal vocal ending theme “Soaring Wings.” It, too, is a piano solo arrangement.
The album’s six performers include two Japanese musicians and four German musicians. The star of the album is pianist Naoko Endo, whom I must credit for knowing how to shape the subtleties of Hamauzu’s music very well. First violinist Kaoru Yamamoto did an excellent job as well. Among the German musicians, I was most impressed by flutist Andrea Ikker and cellist Dietrich von Kaltenborn. The rest of the string quartet (2nd violin Markus Kern, Viola Tilo Widenmeyer) also did well, though I did not mentally mark any moments in their performance where I thought “wow, that was excellent” (as I had the other musicians).
When Hamauzu says “Vielen Dank” to me for being a fan of his and purchasing this album, I want to say “No, thank you Mr. Hamauzu!” However, I think I set my expectations too high. I wanted a lot more out of this album than I got. The best part, in all honesty, is the original medley “Im Abenteurgarten,” with the one FFX arrangement coming in at a close second place. More substance and more arrangements from our favorite games would have been nice. So instead of returning the thanks, I think I’ll simply say “you’re welcome.” Bitte, Herr Hamauzu. Bitte schön.