Symphonic Odysseys -Tribute to Nobuo Uematsu-
Symphonic Odysseys -Tribute to Nobuo Uematsu-
Dog Ear Records
December 28, 2011
Buy at MAZ Sound Tools
Symphonic Odysseys – Tribute to Nobuo Uematsu was the latest of Thomas Böcker and team’s incredibly successful series of German video game music concerts, performed by the WDR Radio Orchestra on July 9th 2011 at the Philharmonic Hall in Cologne. The evening concert sold out 12 hours after tickets went on sale, prompting the team to put on a second performance the afternoon before, which also sold out. An album featuring re-mastered recordings of the pieces from the concert has now been released courtesy of Uematsu’s own label Dog Ear Records and is available to purchase in both Japan and overseas. The album release is great news, especially since the previous effort, Symphonic Legends – Music From Nintendo, unfortunately never got an album release due to Nintendo’s strict corporate policies. Just like the previous two albums, Symphonic Shades and Symphonic Fantasies, this album has studio quality sound and serves as both a trip down memory lane for people who attended the concert or watched the live stream, and also an outstanding album in it’s own right, a fitting tribute to arguably the greatest video game composer in the world.
The opening fanfare wastes no time in throwing us straight into the rich romantic orchestral sound that we’ve come to associate with live performances of Nobuo Uematsu’s music, and the piece takes us through the entire gambit of musical emotions. The piece starts off with the higher strings introducing the first melody, which is then passed on the woodwinds, and then the brass. It starts off light-hearted and then bursts into fanfare. We then get the melody in its full glory in various forms, from the strings to the brass, with some particularly phat playing from the bass trombone. I also love the piano accompaniment the second time the strings get the melody. We then get a second part of the tune from the horns before progressing into a militaristic section before ending rather bombastically. This is a great piece, performed really well too. It has clear influences from John Williams and Tchaikovsky, making for a memorable fanfare to get the listener in the mood for the rest of the album.
The next three tracks form Roger Wanamo’s Concerto for piano and orchestra based on the music of Final Fantasy. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense, as so much of the music of the Final Fantasy series is either piano based or works exceptionally well on the piano. The first movement, Grave – Allegro, begins with the “Opening Theme” from Final Fantasy VI. Despite the lack of pipe organ, the beginning has an unbelievable impact due to some incredible orchestration. But the piano soloist — the incredible Benyamin Nuss — first demonstrates his sensitivity on the quieter passage featured thereafter. The famous Chaos motif is soon incorporated in a really intense way — I love how the piano countermelody interspersed with everything else. Keeping a focus on potent melodies throughout, the main theme of the original Final Fantasy is subsequently played by the orchestra, with the piano in a flurry of arpeggios. Following a Grieg style cadenza, the concerto launches back into the tempo with the battle theme from Final Fantasy II, with added percussion keeping the pace going. The culmination of the track is a broad section featuring the original Final Fantasy main theme and an elaborate rendition of the series’ main theme. Wanamo teases us with an epic build up, but ends on a surprisingly quiet moment, featuring all of the tunes and motif’s from this movement.
The second movement, Adagio Cantabile, opens with some solo piano, featuring “Celes” (FFVI) and “The Boundless Ocean” (FFIII). After about a minute of solo piano, the woodwinds enter providing some support and playing some of the melody lines, giving Benyamin the opportunity to explore some Rachmaninov style decoration and countermelodies. The string work, including a really beautiful cello solo, continue to explore the emotional depths one would expect from the slow movement of a romantic concerto and complement Nuss’ piano performance. Featuring a subtle but beautiful arch, the arrangement dramatically builds up into “Darkness and Starlight” (FFVI) and closes with a reprise of “The Boundless Ocean” featuring a beautiful violin solo.
The climactic third movement, Allegro Molto, begins valiantly with “Battle With The Four Fiends” (FFIV) and “The Decisive Battle” (FFVI) cleverly interspersed with one another. The intensity is maintained really well — my favourite bit is when the piano solo gets to shine with fast flurries of melody, especially when it introduces “Clash on the Big Bridge” (FFV) into the concerto before. The recapitulation of “The Decisive Battle” at the end features some incredibly virtuosic playing by Nuss. Simply put, this is one of the best piano concertos I’ve ever heard. Uematsu’s unforgettable melodies combined with the style, structure and flare of a Rachmaninoff or Grieg piano concerto is a perfect match. This is especially great since Chris, among a few others, felt that the Final Fantasy suite from Symphonic Fantasies was ‘inspired more by fandom than artistry’ compared to the rest of the concert items. Now that Uematsu has given the team complete creative freedom, they were able to offer artistry at its best with this item. The melodies are still obviously recognisable, yet contained in a structure that may seem odd to some yet fits perfectly, and Benyamin Nuss is incredible on the solo piano. An absolute triumph.
And now for something completely different, a lesser known game and music from way back to a time before Final Fantasy existed. For “King’s Knight BGM ~Pretty day out~”, instead of just a straight orchestral arrangement of the music from King’s Knight, arranger Jonne Valtonen decided to throw a few surprises, such as the choir playing kazoos. Despite being one of Uematsu’s pre-Final Fantasy compositions, if this track and the performance at the concert is anything to go by, Uematsu had plenty of talent even before he became famous. This tune has a few musical surprises of it’s own, such as stuttering tempo and time signature changes, as well unique instrumentation such as the kazoos and instrument effects such as flutter tonguing in the brass. It opens with the kazoos before the orchestra come in with a militaristic yet jovial melody. There’s a section in the middle that combines silly percussion noises with brooding music, before the choir performs a series of dramatic and spooky chants — always keeping the listener second guessing what’s going to happen next. Then there’s a reprise of the main melody with the choir singing along with some very entertaining lyrics. It was a good decision to make this the comical piece of the concert, and as the dark horse of the itinerary, it’s really good and should interest anyone wondering what Nobuo Uematsu’s music sounded like before Final Fantasy.
Valtonen’s “Light of Silence” from Chrono Trigger takes form of an a capella choral arrangement. Continuing the dark abstract tones of the previous arrangement, it starts out with some eerie whistling effects before the main tune comes in. The lyrics, melody, and scoring make it sound like a really good Christmas carol, but there are a few surprises such as suddenly holding incredibly dissonant chords, hissing effects, and incredibly unconventional harmonising. The lyrics specifically written for this arrangement ensure the music is more immersive on a stand-alone level and also work incredibly well in the context of the game. This is followed by “The Final Fantasy Legend / Final Fantasy Legend II” (aka SaGa and SaGa 2), featuring the main theme and “Save the World” from those games. Opening with a John Williams style fanfare before the rest of the orchestra come in, the entire piece has a lot in common with film scores such as those of Star Wars and Hook — with brass-focused orchestration and a combination of intense dark passages with fantastical, whimsical moments.. There’s even a bit of jazz thrown in for good measure with walking bass, driving percussion and pizzicato strings in one section.
We then come to the end of disc one, with “A Fleeting Dream” from Final Fantasy X. Roger Wanamo’s adaptation is based on Masashi Hamauzu’s arrangement of “Suteki da ne” used as the party transverse the Zanarkand in twilight towards the end of the game. The orchestration at the beginning is so magical — just hinting at the main melody line while filling the ears of listeners with beautiful timbres. The main body of the piece them begins with a female solo above light orchestral accompaniment, and builds as the melody is passed between instruments and the lower end of the choir. Pretty much every instrument and voice in the choir gets an opportunity to play the melody — my favourites are the oboes and horns. But perhaps the most impressive section features several solo singers harmonising each other before the orchestra take over. Being more used to “Suteki Da Ne”, it was great to hear this orchestrated, harmonically it’s more interesting and there’s some fantastic build up at several points in the piece. The track has some applause at the end, which should give a good idea of how appreciative the attending audience was.
While disc one is classic Square, disc two mostly consists of some of Uematsu’s more recent compositions. It opens with “Spreading Your Wings” from Uematsu’s most recent major scoring project The Last Story. This is romantic orchestration similar to what you’d find in the orchestral versions of “A Fleeting Dream”, but filled with impressionistic touches from arranger Jani Laaksonen. The piece opens with some abstract chords before the main tune is introduced, highlighted both on a gorgeous cello and violin duet and, for the second part of the melody, the concert series’ returning violinist. Of all the arrangements, this one showcases the talent and sensitivity of concertmaster Juraj Cizmarovic the most, from the exposition to the closing moments. What’s more, the melody is unforgettable — pure Uematsu — and it’s great to hear it fully orchestrated.
The subsequent addition is “On Windy Meadows” from Final Fantasy XIV — a critically panned game that nevertheless featured Uematsu’s first solo score for the series since Final Fantasy IX. The light-hearted organic opening of the pieces brings percussion and flute to the forefront, giving the impression of a lush, green setting. This builds into a tutti section with the strings carrying the melody, as the brass add decoration and keep the rhythm. These two styles reprise in later sections of the piece, before an interesting pause. Some woodwind effects and pizzicato strings drive this very different addition to the concert before it enters the climax. The track is followed by “Waterside” from Blue Dragon — evidently a personal favourite of Böcker and Valtonen. In many ways, it is very similar to “Spreading Your Wings” with an impressionistic string-focused orchestration, featuring highlight cello and violin solos. While the arrangement inspires vivid imagery of water scenes, it also blooms towards its climax in a dramatic yet relaxing manner. In fact, this arrangement wouldn’t be out of place in an old Hollywood romantic film.
Inspired by the approach of Symphonic Fantasies, the next piece is a 20 minute symphonic suite dedicated to Lost Odyssey. It opens with the main theme played by the woodwind to some interesting string harmonies, before the snare drum comes in and signifies the beginning of the main body of the piece. The choir gets some action once again here, providing some excellent support to the orchestra. The harp has some interesting things to do here too in “Highlands of Wohl”, where it’s played almost like a guitar underneath the orchestra, and it works really well. This crescendos into a dark passage leading into “A Mighty Enemy Appears”, the boss battle theme. The strings are intense, the brass are heavy, and the tempo is steady, just the way this piece should sound. But this is balanced by some quieter moments, which bring depth to the experience. The orchestration here was clearly inspired by the ballets of Stravinsky, in that you never quite know what’s coming next, and the musical lines and modulations that the team have added in themselves work really well. I would’ve liked to have heard the awesome high trumpet scream that can be heard in the original, just because it’s so unexpected, but there’s enough unexpected material here to surprise anyone. After suddenly stopping the orchestra quietly plays some dark music that sounds like Gongora’s theme and more emotional romantic music.
In one of my favourite segments of the suite, the choir enters to yield a dark transition into “Dark Saint Battle”, which everyone nailed. Often with original that feature rock band instruments combined with orchestral instruments, I’ve been slightly disappointed with some of the orchestral arrangements, for example Distant Worlds. Here, the orchestra compensate really well with driving percussion, fast moving strings, and a really intense sounding choir — a great section of the suite. After some string harmonics, the choir comes in with a short reprise of the main theme and the trumpets play a fanfare that leads into “Light of Blessing ~ A Letter”, which starts on the organ before the orchestra and choir gradually enter. The English lyrics really help make this sound appropriately like a wedding and ending theme, and really capture the beauty of the music of this game. After a great cello solo, there’s a reprise of the main theme featuring the choir that dramatically builds up to a spectacular climax on a major chord. The suite dies away to make room for the piano, harp and chimes in the percussion to end the piece — the chimes, in particular, play for quite some time to let the whole thing sink in, which is necessary after listening to the whole thing. It’s a good thing no one applauded or cheered prematurely in the concert as that would’ve killed it (it’s happened before in concerts I’ve played in). I personally would’ve liked to have heard some of the piano pieces from the ‘1000 years of memories’ segments, as that’s my favourite music from Lost Odyssey, but this is a brilliant suite and I thoroughly enjoy listening to it.
The final two tracks of the album will be favourites of several Final Fantasy fans I’m sure. The first is the ending theme from Final Fantasy X, with a focus on the piano. There’s some incredibly virtuosic playing here, but it’s played with such heart making it so great to listen to. I didn’t think it was possible to outdo the orchestration and arrangement of the original, but they’ve done it. The hints of several of the games tunes such as “To Zanarkand” in the style of “Love Grows” from Final Fantasy VIII really make this a joy to listen to. Even though it’s shorter than the original, it manages to surpass it.
And finally we come to the end of the album with the “Battle Suite” from Final Fantasy VII. It opens with Shiro Hamaguchi’s piano arrangement of the main battle theme heard in Advent Children, among other places, before the orchestra and choir come in to add some serious impact — this battle theme has never sounded so epic. This then transitions into a hint of “One Winged Angel”, which got a premature cheer from the audience, only saved by a percussion transition into “JENOVA”. Once again, I’ve never heard this track sound so intense and epic before — the team really went out of their way to make these orchestrations the best available. The piece ends with a reprise of the main battle theme. I’m glad they decided not to have this piece focus on “One Winged Angel” and instead focus on incredible orchestrations of the other two pieces mentioned here, resulting in a brilliant end to the concert and the album, and you can hear how much the audience enjoyed it right at the end of the track. Even though some video game music fans need to learn when to be quiet and listen to the music (mainly a problem in Distant Worlds and Video Games Live), the orchestras playing these gigs get a real kick out of the extremely enthusiastic audiences that attend these concerts, and it really creates a brilliant atmosphere that I felt even just listening to this album.
Thomas Böcker and the whole team at Merregnon Studios have done it again — they never cease to amaze everyone. Symphonic Odysseys was an outstanding concert — possibly the most successful in Europe to date — followed by another phenomenal album release which is one of the best video game music albums ever made. I don’t suppose Nobuo Uematsu, as a little boy teaching himself Elton John songs on the piano, ever dreamed that he would be honoured this way by so many people. Just like Symphonic Shades andSymphonic Fantasies before it, this album is a tour de force of flawless performances and impeccable orchestrations and arrangements of some of the incredible music from the mind of Uematsu-san. In fact, I’d consider many of the pieces of music featured on this album the definitive way to hear his music, surpassing that of Distant Worlds and even sometimes Symphonic Fantasies. This album is a perfect tribute to arguably the greatest video game composer to ever have lived, and an incredible album in it’s own right, which should appeal to almost everybody. Whether you’re a classical music fan, a fan of Nobuo Uematsu, Square, and Mistwalker, or simply a curious reader, this album is well worth your time and money. If Uematsu retires tomorrow, then the world has this gem to remember him by. I can’t wait to hear what Thomas comes up with next — he’s set the bar extremely high and I’m sure he’ll continue to amaze us all in the future.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Joe Hammond. Last modified on August 1, 2012.