Final Fantasy: A New World -Intimate Music from Final Fantasy-
Final Fantasy: A New World -Intimate Music from Final Fantasy-
August 22, 2014
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For several years the Final Fantasy series has become more than just games, it has become an icon. Spanning fourteen numbered instalments and numerous spinoffs, the franchise has covered much ground since the NES original. Nobuo Uematsu, the beloved composer of most of the franchise’s music, has become a common name amongst those who have a passion for games as well as music. His melodies have touched many and have inspired countless listeners to pursue careers in the gaming or music industry (myself included). These melodies were also some of the first to feature in Western game music concerts, which have now become an international cultural phenomenon. I remember when Dear Friends – Music from Final Fantasy was first made and it was one of the very few game concerts to come to the U.S. Then after those concerts sold out, more venues appeared in the form of Distant Worlds, which increased in scope and gained international success. Where could Uematsu and music director Arnie Roth go to go after this?
Instead of making another full orchestra tour, they decided to break down the music into its most intimate and essential elements to bring out the well crafted melodies of Nobuo’s compositions. A New World – Intimate Music from Final Fantasy features chamber and solo performances of music from across the numbered Final Fantasy repertoire. The premiere, occurring in a London church on February 15, 2014, was performed by artists such as the Navarra String Quartet, pianist Benyamin Nuss, and violinist Arnie Roth, with Uematsu as a special guest. The concert was recorded live by a team from Abbey Road and has now been released in physical and digital form. I remained skeptical at the concept of the concert initially — after all, pieces like “One Winged Angel” needs a large ensemble to give the necessary impact. However, my fears were mostly erased once I listened to the live recording in full.
Starting the album with the iconic One Winged Angel is gutsy as it is more suited to a closing selection; however, it strangely works. The performances by the wind instruments and the Navarra String Quartet are very energetic and virtuosic. What I find interesting is that the reduced instrumentation does nothing to diminish the power from the original Hamaguchi orchestration. In fact, it sounds more like a private duel between Cloud and Sephiroth instead of the entire cast of heroes against the villain.
I am really glad that the arrangements presented on this album are mostly new. Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy Hamaguchi’s orchestrations, but it is very nice to finally explore new adaptations and receive some interesting surprises along the way. For example, “A New World” from Final Fantasy V and “Dark World” from Final Fantasy VI are both stark contrasts to the other. In the first, we hear a calm and gorgeous theme with a soft melody played by a wide variety of instruments. In fact, the strings alternate between pizzicato and natural while the soft sound of a trumpet shares the melody with the violins, flute, and clarinet. I was not familiar with this titular piece before listening, but I really love the melody and the overall effect of the arrangement.
“Dark World” is completely the opposite as it has a more dark and lonely sound. Starting off with the sound of the wind blowing and the tremolo string effects to create a very mysterious and foreboding sound, this piece gives a more somber feel compared to the light and beautiful A New World. The solo violin melody (performed by music director Arnie Roth) gives me chills along with the steady organ chord progression (a guest performance from Uematsu himself). I really love the steady build up as more instruments enter. The effect is so haunting and sends chills up my spine. Despite the few instruments involved, the sound is full right down to the cello and bass sounds full and spacious.
Now the battle theme selection to the album includes some popular compositions such as “Battle with Seymour” from Final Fantasy X, “Force Your Way” from Final Fantasy VIII, and “Decisive Battle” from Final Fantasy VI. Battle with Seymour is my favorite out the whole batch due to the fact that it is arranged for string quartet. Featuring a wonderful performance by the Navarra String Quartet, it brings a vivid and colorful rendition to the repertoire, Nobuo Uematsu’s music is exposed to its bare essentials. That said, the arrangement from Arnie and Eric Roth sticks very rigidly to the source material and I was hoping for a more elaborate spin on the classic. However, due to their performance, the ensemble managed to breathe fresh life into a work I might not have thought would have worked well for this particular instrumentation.
“Force Your Way” is pretty standard fare, the only difference between this and the original is the performance quality. Again, I was hoping for more theme elaboration, like what I would have received with Shiro Hamaguchi’s talents, who sadly hasn’t been involved with any Final Fantasy production for a decade now. The performance is largely polished and still manages to bring a level of nostalgia. The clarinet flutters in place of the synth of the original adds character, though the trumpet is too loud at times and covers up the ensemble. “Decisive Battle” would have been better suited to being strictly a string quartet piece as I didn’t really get the aggressive sound of a decisive battle. It sounds too tame for me. In terms of originality, the arrangement doesn’t even develop or elaborate much on the source material, but rather simply loops the piece. It just didn’t seem right upon listening to it and, for that reason, becomes skip worthy.
Despite feeling that many pieces deserved more attention to the arrangement, others shined in their simplicity. “Troian Beauty” is probably my favorite on the album, simply because it is a nice intimate duet for guitar and cello. It sounds so homely and heartwarming. This arrangement is absolutely gorgeous in its simplicity. My only gripe is that this one is too short! It needed more elaboration which many pieces on this album suffer from. “Town” is another fine example of beauty in simplicity. Performed by a small ensemble of guitar, strings, clarinet, flute, trumpet, and percussion, it opens with some gorgeous timbres and gradually becomes embellished.
Moving on, we have “The Promise – Blinded By Light”. No matter how many times I hear this, I always enjoy it. One of Masashi Hamauzu’s most iconic themes is gorgeously realized in this heartfelt piano and violin arrangement. The battle section is nicely arranged and manages to not only capture the original, but also elaborate in places to make this sound naturally flowing. As an arranger, the most important thing I must do is to make the parts work together, making interesting exchanges between instruments as two people would a dance routine. This selection does precisely that.
The rest of the pieces are some miscellaneous new arrangements and some older selections. Let’s start with the familiar, shall we? “Zanarkand” is the Shiro Hamaguchi’s orchestration from Tour de Japon simply performed with fewer instruments and adjustments in orchestration to fit that ensemble. Literally everything sounds as you would expect if you have heard the full orchestra version. It is gorgeous using a smaller ensemble and you can hear all of the flourishes Hamaguchi wrote more clearly. “Fragments of Memories”, which appeared as a coda to the album Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec, is exactly the same; it fits better with this concert than that album, in my opinion, and the string quartet arrangement by Shiro Hamaguchi pulls at the heart string.
Next we have the piano arrangements, namely Shiro Hamaguchi’s “Those Who Fight”, Kumi Tanioka’s “Gustaberg”, and Casey Ormond’s “Eruyt Village” from Final Fantasy VII, XI, and XII respectively. These arrangements are all excellent, capturing the individuality of the arrangers with their respective jazz, balladic, and impressionistic approaches, and are exactly the same from their respective piano collection albums. I really was hoping they were to be expanded by adding more instruments such as string quartet, guitar, and woodwinds. They have so much potential and could have been worked into the existing piano arrangement rather easily. That said, I have nothing against spotlighting the piano and would even be up for attending some Final Fantasy piano recitals one day.
The miscellaneous new arrangements include some interesting offerings. Final Fantasy IV’s “Red Wings” is given a new sound by using a smaller ensemble. This performance is nicely done with the militaristic sound and the brilliant melody soaring over everything. Beyond a piano rendition, the only other arrangement I’ve heard of this comes from the Orchestral Game Concert series. It certainly takes me back to the beloved SNES days. “Rebel Army Theme” did what all the other tracks should have done and that was to offer some elaboration and embellishment to give the arrangement something to stand on. It sounds ominous to start, as if one is staring off into the distance and sees an army of silhouetted forms against the horizon. Then the army passes and marches off into the sunset to fight another day. I love the use of the guitar and the Navarra Quartet delivers once again.
Finally, we have a couple of medleys. One is a medley dedicated to the Moogle themes and the other is the Chocobo medley. Both have a nice comical sound which one expects when Moogles and Chocobos are involved. The instrumentation is well done and the arrangement is fresh and lively. I love how in the Chocobo medley they included Ukelele de Chocobo and the signature Chocobo chirps. It is a clever arrangement and that is a nice welcome addition to a sometimes-uninspired concert. Although this album is a recording of a live performance, thankfully the audience doesn’t get in the way of even sillier arrangements like these. Perhaps reflecting the talent of the Abbey Road mobile team, the balance and quality is also impressive throughout.
I was largely impressed by some of the selections in this album. It serves as a nice overview of the Final Fantasy series as a whole offering heartfelt melodies exposed at their most bare elements and answers the question: “What makes Final Fantasy music so dear to us?” Some of the music included may have some serious need of elaboration and arrangement refinement, and I really hope for a return of the refined and brilliant arrangements of Shiro Hamaguchi one day. Thankfully, much of the less impressive arrangements are carried by the strength of the original compositions and the strong performances. It still hits all the right emotions and manages to prove to us why Final Fantasy music is so successful and so wonderful. The album also managed to introduce me to some less covered repertoire in the series. I know I will be listening to more Final Fantasy V as a result! Though far from perfect, I’d recommend checking out the album and checking out A New World in concert the next time it is in your area.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on October 1, 2014 by Josh Barron. Last modified on January 18, 2016.