Final Fantasy I / II / III Piano Opera
Final Fantasy I / II / III Piano Opera
February 29, 2012
Buy at CDJapan
Uematsu’s melodies for the first three Final Fantasy games are some of the richest of his career. While having more classical leanings than his later works, they are still filled with exuberance and emotion. Nevertheless, his works on these games has often been ignored — by fans and Square Enix alike — in favour of his SNES and PlayStation era soundtracks. The Piano Collections series, for instance, ignored the NES instalments of the series altogether. Noticing the gap, fans came up with the idea of a Final Fantasy I – III Piano Collection close to a decade ago on this very site. Square Enix finally made it happen in 2012 by publishing Piano Opera Final Fantasy I / II / III. Contrary to the slightly misleading and pretentious title, this is a recording of 13 performances for solo piano. It took 25 years, but the featured pieces are so good that it was certainly worth it…
Arranger and performer Hiroyuki Nakayama reflects the ambition of the Piano Opera right away with the opener, featuring the series’ mainstays “Prelude” and “Prologue” (aka “Final Fantasy”). Both tracks have been featured in previous Piano Collections, but never so sumptuously. The opening arpeggios sound elegant under Nakayama’s fingers, with each note resounding beautifully in this crystal clear recording. While he stays true to the simple original sequence, he also incorporates some more daring chord choices to develop the track. The overture that follows is also fulfilling, with the rich classically-tinged melody on the right-hand being supported by robust countermelodies in the left-hand and, eventually, a reprise of the arpeggio figures. But the crowning achievement of the arrangement is the passionate interlude between the two themes, where Nakayama incorporates a range of original ideas inspired by Romantic repertoire. Going well beyond the call of duty, the arranger reveals that a dramatic and emotional experience awaits listeners.
Throughout the album, Nakayama does an excellent job retaining the essence of the originals while asserting his own voice. For instance, he ensures the pull of Final Fantasy‘s main theme is the bright hummable melody Uematsu wrote back in 1987. But by incorporating all sorts of bold harmonies, treble frills, and a propulsive tempo, Nakayama ensures the piano rendition is a fully-fledged opus in its own right. By contrast, the main theme for Final Fantasy II is filled with melancholy just like the misty original. The well-preserved melody is embellished with beautiful chromaticisms in the bass and tear jerking echoes in the treble, while the central interlude proves an emotional rollercoaster. Final Fantasy III‘s overworld theme, on the other hand, takes listeners on scenic journey. The body of the arrangement is filled with boundless optimism, but it is bookmarked by much more pensive sections coated with novel impressionistic chords and even the airy descant from the original.
Above all, Nakayama doesn’t hesitate to do new and interesting things with the 8-bit melodies. “Matoya’s Cave” isn’t the bright or humble arrangement most would expect. Instead, it opens with the imposing exposition of a fugue, giving way to a range of intense and compelling passagework blending both Baroque and Romantic tradition. Though not all will be happy with the transformation, it certainly presents a new perspective on Uematsu’s earliest dungeon theme. “Tower of the Magi” is likewise a greatly elaboration on its simplistic original; the vast moody introduction gives way to the more familiar cascading runs of the original, this time with the dense counterpoint and chromaticisms to challenge even an advanced pianist. The already daring “Mount Gulug” and “Crystal Cave” receive ambitious arrangements too; the former is a brief but interesting mixture of modernist clusters and jazz rhythms, whereas the latter recreates the eerie ambience of the original while still sounding pianistic.
But the most spectacular moments of the entire disc are not the loudest or the flashiest. Instead, they are the pieces where Nakayama offers a much more intimate and personal performance. “The Boundless Ocean” sounds especially beautiful in its rendition here, rivalling even its Symphonic Odysseys incarnation. Relieved of the restrictions of the NES’ sound chip, Uematsu’s melody is truly able to breathe on the solo piano. Guided by its fluid and expressive shape, Nakayama emphasises all the nuances Uematsu only hinted at in the original, while once again reflecting his own Romantic inspirations. But certainly the most heartrending moment comes at the 1:57 mark. Here the melody is recapitulated in the gloomy bass register, as the right-hand decorates it with expansive arpeggios reminiscent of the “Prelude”. Surpassing even the climax of “Crystal Cave” and the FFII “Main Theme”, this stands out as the most breathtaking moment of the entire album. Arrangements like this are also likely to be readily accessible to pianists who bought the sheet music book too.
The album is structured in a logical and fulfilling way. There are three main sections of the album, each dedicated to a different Final Fantasy — this gives a chance for each game to shine with a succession of arrangements, while reflecting the development of the series over the NES era. The separators are medleys incorporating the town and battle themes from the three games. The town themes certainly reflect the humble classical graces of Uematsu in his early years, whereas the battle tracks are full of punchy bass lines and exciting melodies. But while these tracks provide decent fanservice, they aren’t major highlights musically; the featured themes are brief and don’t deviate much from the original material, while the transitions are fairly minimal. The album nevertheless develops in a fulfilling way overall and the climax with Final Fantasy III‘s “This is the Final Battle” is incredible: a modernist extravaganza filled with meaty booming discords and virtuosic passagework.
Piano Opera Final Fantasy I / II / III is an excellent experience from start to finish. While not every tune from the NES era made it, the album is jam-packed with fan favourites and is well-structured. Nobuo Uematsu’s excellent melodies are preserved throughout the album, but are given a new scope through the elaborate arrangements and deep performances. Hiroyuki Nakayama convincingly transforms the humble 8-bit originals into fully-fledged opuses, incorporating classical stylings, lavish harmonies, and original sections along the way. The arrangements may occasionally be too abstract for conservative listeners, but should almost certainly appeal to those who enjoy the wider piano repertoire out there. Those wishing to play the arrangements at home can also purchase the sheet music through Yamaha — a challenging but rewarding experience awaits them. It’s fantastic to see a dream finally become a reality.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Chris Greening. Last modified on August 1, 2012.