SaGa: The Orchestral SaGa -Legend of Music-
The Orchestral SaGa -Legend of Music-
March 23, 2016
Buy at CDJapan
The Orchestral SaGa -Legend of Music- features orchestral performances of music from Square Enix’s long-running SaGa series. The music from the title was recorded under series’ main composer Kenji Ito across two sessions: the first disc features music orchestrated by Kousuke Yamashita and recorded by FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague, the second features music orchestrated by Natsumi Kameoka and recorded by Japanese session musicians. The album seemed to split listeners following its release, with some praising its high-quality interpretations, others criticising its conservative approaches. Let’s take a closer look…
It is evident right from the opener “The Minstrel’s Refrain” that Kousuke Yamashita understands the essence of the SaGa series’ music. He begins with the “Prologue” from the original SaGa title, balancing organic woodwind timbres with motivating brass undertones to create that distinctive RPG feel of setting off on a new adventure. At the minute mark, the medley undergoes a surprising but effective shift into the battle theme “Steslos” from the often-forgotten SaGa 3. Once again, the interpretation of the original material is top-notch, with the brass section capturing all the striking lyricism of the original. Both interpretations adhere strongly to the originals in melody and mood, but are successful adaptations for full orchestra. The production values are top-notch, whether orchestrator Yamashita’s intricate harmonisation of the prologue, conductor Adam Klemens’ command of brass for the battle theme, or the polished on-site recording and post-production mixing. As with the album as a whole, these two minutes of music are highly impressive in production value despite their conservatism in arrangement approach.
However, the medley fails to build on this solid opening to take listeners on a grander musical journey. Instead, the medley is little more than faithful orchestral performances of eight pieces from the series arranged by the data their respective games were released. The transitions between tracks are next to non-existent and the arranger makes no attempts to build continuous elements between the pieces. The inclusion of no less than four of the series’ opening themes results in several stalls during the medley, with even the monophonic harp arpeggios of Romancing SaGa‘s opening being unnecessarily translated here, and this disrupts any dramatic arches that might develop. There’s plenty of fan favourites along the way, from the sorrowful woodwind tones of “Wipe Your Tears Away” to the catchy fiddle lines of Unlimited SaGa‘s battle theme, all faithfully but emotionally interpreted by the FILMharmonic. Yet as charming as these tracks are, they feel detached from the material flanking them and would have been much more fulfilling if they served as the respective lows and highs in a wider emotional journey. In the end, the individual parts of the medley are much better than the experience as a whole.
Looking wider to the rest of the music, you’ll notice that every single one of the 14 tracks here has ‘medley’ in the title. Don’t expect any rich, interpretative, full-length interpretations of your favourite material, but instead faithfully-orchestrated one to two minute snippets within unambitious melodies. This approaches works quite well in places: the bright melodies and punchy cadences of SaGa 2‘s battle themes translate well into a medley format, while the brief organ segment and haunting violin interlude of the “Last Dungeon” medley bring welcome timbral variety to the experience. Such tracks are of the quality that might be expected from a Square Enix orchestral album. The two medleys dedicated to SaGa Frontier II also lift the experience thanks to the strength of Hamauzu’s original. Even though it adheres strongly to the original, track 8 is the most musically accomplished of all of the tracks on the album, blending dazzling piano lines and grandiose orchestration with great majesty. “Days of Strife” is more of a standard medley, which sometimes strays awkwardly towards blending orchestral leads with pop-flavoured harmonies. However, it’s still highly listenable thanks to Hamauzu’s Feldschlacht originals and the FILMharmonic’s solid performances.
However, the album doesn’t simply fall down for its conservatism. A couple of the battle theme medleys, namely those dedicated to the Romancing SaGa trilogy on track 5 and SaGa Frontier on track 6, lack the classical sophistication of other pieces on the album. The former gets off to a promising start with its elegant transitions and wide dynamic range, but falls down due to its clumsy treatment of the melodies, particularly Romancing SaGa 3‘s last battle theme. The SaGa Frontier arrangement feels equally ill-fitting as the orchestral textures clash awkwardly with the pop-flavoured melodies. In places, these tracks remind of the desperate attempts of Final Fantasy Symphonic Suite‘s “Scene II” to translate rock music to orchestra (though there’s thankfully no drum machine). Another low point is the Unlimited SaGa medley, which fails to capture the colour and variety of Hamauzu’s original score. Instead, it’s no more than a note-for-note rehash of Shiro Hamaguchi’s main theme orchestration blended with some dull interpretations of “March in C” and “Finale”. Whereas the SaGa Frontier II tracks captured the essence of Hamauzu’s score, this arrangement merely captures one component of a much richer score.
The second disc of the album features Natsumi Kameoka’s orchestrations that were performed by Japanese session musicians with time leftover from SaGa: Scarlet Grace‘s recording sessions. While the production quality isn’t quite as high for these tracks, the arrangements are significantly more interpretative. For one, the pieces within the medleys come together quite well since there is continuity in mood and style between them: Minstrel Song‘s focusing on ethereal impressionistic soundscapes, Romancing SaGa 3 having a buoyant adventurous feel, and the battle medley being appropriately epic. The most memorable moments are the gorgeous interpretation of “Lost Woods” and, for better or worse, the hybridisation of rock and orchestral instruments at the climax of the final piece. Yet while the arrangement quality picks up substantially in this disc, the tracks are conceptually, musically, and physically disconnected from the core of the album. And with just four tracks and 21 minutes of music, it is difficult to understand why Square Enix tacked-on a whole disc of music to these arrangements when they could have easily fitted on the first disc. This is no pedantic criticism, as it means the overall pricetag for The Orchestral SaGa was jacked up to some 4104 JPY (about 40 USD).
The Orchestral SaGa will largely appeal to those looking for faithful conservative performances of fan favourites from the SaGa franchise. However, it will disappoint those looking for more interpretative arrangements and dramatic journeys. For me, the album was largely a disappointing experience between the abrupt medley structures, erratic battle arrangements, and tacked-on second disc. However, it still has its moments thanks to the strength of the original material, the polished production values, and a couple of more innovative medleys. Given the huge pricetag, I highly recommend carefully considering what you’re looking for before taking a plunge with this potentially dissatisfying album.
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Posted on July 1, 2016 by Chris Greening. Last modified on July 2, 2016.