Masashi Hamauzu: Opus 4 Piano and Chamber Music Works
Masashi Hamauzu: Opus 4 Piano and Chamber Music Works
September 20, 2014
Buy at Official Site
Masashi Hamauzu has been very active since Final Fantasy XIII, moving from one of gaming’s most popular franchises to a freelance composing career. During this time, he has collaborated with Ainu artist Mina in the form of Imeruat, as well as composing classical works performed by pianist Benyamin Nuss for not only in live venues but also for Sony’s Project a Clock in which he scored themes to many locations across the Earth in an effort to show the beauty of our planet as well as demonstrate the new Sony line of cameras. If that wasn’t enough Hamauzu-san got together with Roger Wanamo to arrange a symphonic suite completely dedicated to Final Fantasy X for Thomas Boecker’s production Final Symphony, which was performed in both Wuppertal and London. Naturally after receiving such success with his classical efforts, Hamauzu decided to make another classical album featuring original works and arrangements of previously heard compositions. I was completely thrilled to also find that Benyamin Nuss would be performing the piano. In addition to having an amazing pianist on board, Hamauzu managed to get two more talented musicians: Lisa Schumann and Kana Shirao, who play violin and cello respectively. So with all of the right makings available, does Hamauzu create a pleasurable experience that builds upon his knowledge and experience? Let us see!
The album starts with a collection of twelve shorter piano solo compositions in which they all comprise one work called Etude Op. 4. This features Benyamin Nuss, who I believe is the best pianist to perform and interpret Hamauzu’s compositions. He just understands the style and vision that Hamauzu presents. Rather than going through all of the individual parts of Etude Op. 4, I will discuss the overall impact of the work as a whole and go over my favorite parts. This will be difficult to do as there are so many great things about this etude. Channeling all of his experience with Rhapsody on a Theme of SaGa Frontier II, Hamauzu gives us a beautiful a vivid painting of various musical colors. One can expect the best that Hamauzu has to offer here.
There are pieces that have a nice light touch, those with a more subdued and serene sound, and there are those that have a complex and flighty sound. As stated by Hamauzu himself, this etude did not contain a specific theme since all of the pieces flow together as one work. However, each has their own lyrical voice. Starting off with a nice opening with chords that are both fresh and exciting is what one would expect from Hamauzu’s music. “No. 1 C-Dur Die Glocke” is an energetic, yet lively offering that is complex yet is structural in its approach giving a nice solid introduction to the other pieces in Etude 4. Following this grand opening he moves onto a wider variety of piano sounds. You have light, melodic, and busy pieces such as “No. 2 D-Dur” which sounds like Hamauzu drew some inspiration from “Asturias” by Isaac Albeniz. “No. 4 C-Dur” is another that is light, but at times it can be delicate and moving. Again, I find myself enjoying the chord progression which also serves as the melody. Hamauzu has a gift in creating momentum in simplicity.
To carry this idea of chords further, he writes almost in a jazz sense when it comes to chord structure as well. This can be heard in “No. 5 C-Dur” as the melody is given some interesting chords to press it forward. However, in “”No. 6 d-Moll Blank”, which is one of the more lengthy works, he shows a very subdued and tender side with a hint of jazz and contemporary sounds. I love the form here as Hamauzu perfected his compositional mastery over the piano, and Nuss simply takes it all to another level with his ability to put just the right emotions into the music.
When I listen to “No. 7 B-Dur”, I think of a bird flying in the beautiful blue sky. It has a nice flying effect in the upper registers of the piano to start and just simply floats with its airy melody and style. “No. 8 g-Moll” creates a similar sense of flight except this one isn’t as tender as the last this one is certainly busier sounding and the interesting chords starting at 0:52 take me back to Hamauzu’s SaGa Frontier II days. I love these chords! They clash but they are still very appealing to my ears and Nuss just goes with it bringing them to the forefront. The effects are well done throughout this composition and are further testament to how Hamauzu can effectively write piano music.
The end of this etude is very energetic and encompasses a great deal of emotion throughout the last three pieces: “No. 10 B-Dur”, “No. 11 Es-Dur”, and “No. 12 Des-Dur”. The first two are perfect build up and have some rich textures to the music, making the coda to this particular etude very effective and grandiose. “No. 12 Des-Dur” is my absolute favorite of the finale of Etude 4 as the beginning passage sets the unique tone of the piece. The momentum is relentless, whereas Hamauzu usually gives some musical break in his works in terms of momentum this keeps going full speed ahead. This isn’t overly aggressive as it is light and lively even when it is in its quieter moments. At 1:35 the chords are played faster and develop into a nice melodic passage as it closes with energy. I am completely moved by the work and believe it is Hamauzu’s strongest piano solo work.
One would think that it would be hard to top the wonderfully composed and performed Etude 4, but Hamauzu still impresses. The next three compositions make up one compositional work titled “Violin Etude Op. 1 Atmosphere” which features violinist Lisa Schumann in addition to Benyamin Nuss. Before I delve into the compositions closely, I have to say that Lisa Schumann gave excellent performances along with Nuss. The clarity in sound and tone are simply brilliant.
The first piece is tender and serene; the violin just simply floats along with the piano in a pond of beautiful textures giving this a very touching sound. This composition is so relaxing and gives just the right amount of emotion from the performers. Although the second part is more varied in its emotion it still continues the musical thought. The violin gets loud abruptly as it sounds like a stumbling effect. The plucks and other effects add some variance in sound and manage to create a neat atmosphere. It has hinted aggression with tender passages including these “musical stumbles”. I love the combination and it serves as a great musical bridge to the final part as it so masterfully combines both of what the first and last piece achieve stylistically. The last piece in this violin etude is more lively and certainly more loud and crisp than the other two parts.
Yet for all of its liveliness, it still retains warmth and soars at times. I love the amount of different emotions in play. It makes it difficult to focus on one particular emotion upon listening. Hamauzu stated in the liner notes that he wanted to convey a warm and bittersweet essence amidst a white, hazy atmosphere. I believe in addition to those two descriptions, Hamauzu creates a sense of uncertainty in terms of emotion while keeping it warm and bittersweet all in the same moment throughout. The fact that he decided to not create a central theme throughout all the more proves this. Themes are used so that we might identify with a particular person, setting, or emotion. The fact that there isn’t a central theme keeps us in this hazy atmosphere as Hamauzu described, but at the same time keeps us wondering which feelings we should feel.
The next three pieces are stand alone experiences with two of them being new compositions and one being an arrangement. In addition to our already excellent duet, cellist Kana Shirao joins the ensemble along with Schumann and Nuss. I love the sound of the cello so this is an absolute treat for me! The two new works “Impromptu Furioso” and “Frenzy Under Pressure” are compositionally sound works given some great performances by this formidable trio of musicians. The first piece is just as the title suggests it is furious, aggressive, and lively whereas the second piece is a tender and melancholic piece that gives off a lot of emotion with its beautiful melodies. Both are great compositions and are strong and significant entries for Hamauzu personally as they established his interest to write works without the restrictions of working with a company. This is especially true for “Frenzy Under Pressure” as it is the first composition he wrote upon deciding to become freelance after resigning from Square-Enix to start Monomusik.
“Giant” is an arrangement of Hamauzu’s composition from his collaboration with Mina in the band Imeruat which was originally released on the album Black Ocean. This version is more personal I think than the original as one can just feel the difference. From a notation standpoint, nothing has really changed aside from the instrumentation. I believe the trio ensemble gives this composition new life and more passion as I would call this the definitive recording of “Giant”. I cannot get over how catchy and soaring that melody is!
“Elf” is a very personal composition from Masashi Hamauzu as he wrote it for his daughter Ayane when she was eleven years old. According to Hamauzu, the meaning of “Elf” in German means “fairy” and the number “eleven”. This gives the piece, which is a soft and light offering with a catchy melody echoing Hamauzu’s efforts with Chocobo’s Mysterious Dungeon, new meaning and you can just hear how much a father cares for his daughter in the music: a strong, innocent, familial love. It is most certainly a touching and serene composition as well as giving the listener a glimpse into the composer’s life.
To close this amazing album, Hamauzu created a special arrangement of “Missgestalt”, which is quite possibly the best battle theme Hamauzu ever wrote not only from SaGa Frontier II but his entire career. Starting with a nice effective build of chords and flourishes in the right hand, the arrangement is off to an exciting start. Then the brilliant melody comes in its entire splendor with some nice runs in the right hand and the off-beat rhythms make for an interesting beat throughout. Then the pounding chords return and usher us into a reprise of the melody which is always welcome. Nuss gives this arrangement so much character and I realize that “Missgestalt” is perfect for his playing style. The middle part gives us a little time to relax with a subdued and jazzy sound before slowly going into the pounding, visceral chords which will lead us back to the main melody and ultimately to the powerful and aggressive ending. I can only imagine how tired Nuss must have been after playing this one! Playing chords like that and so fast is not an easy task to be sure. Congratulations to Nuss for such a wonderful performance! This is definitely my favorite Hamauzu piano composition and a brilliant way to close such an amazing album.
After being a fan of Masashi Hamauzu for over eight years now, I can see how he has honed his skills and grown as both a composer and an artist. If ever I had one shred of doubt that this album wouldn’t be exceptional, then my doubts are erased now. Hamauzu-san has created an excellent album with a diverse range of styles that not only proves that he is a master at writing music for chamber settings, but also a master at composing music that stimulates the mind. I found myself dissecting each piece to find deeper meaning within the music. I honestly haven’t been so mentally vested when listening to anything before. For fans of Hamauzu, classical enthusiasts, or simply people who love thought provoking music that is relaxing and stimulating, this album is a must. I am so glad to have this album in my collection and I really hope Hamauzu-san releases more albums like this in the future! His latest concert release comes in the form of Pianoschlacht which can be purchased through Monomusik as well. It contains live works from Opus 4 as well as new exclusive arrangements of music from Final Fantasy XIII and the world premiere of music from Legend of Legacy.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on March 23, 2015 by Josh Barron. Last modified on March 24, 2015.
Beautiful review Josh. Really love how you wrote this one.
Thank you, Chris! I really connected with the music and it was very thought provoking.
Your piece on this album was excellent, Josh. I’m surprisingly not familiar with this composer, but now am definitely interested and will seek out this album thanks to your review. It seems to be something that would appeal to my love for classical music.
Keep up the excellent work!
Thank you so much, Oliver! I am glad that my review piqued your curiosity for Hamauzu’s music! It really is a must for classical music enthusiasts especially if you enjoy the likes of Debussy and other classical Impressionists.