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Piano Opera: Final Fantasy VII/VIII/IX (Review)

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Final Fantasy is a series that has always had a special place in my heart. Part of this is due to the memorable moments of gameplay that I’ve experienced throughout the years, but a big part of what has kept me coming back to the games is the excellent music. Nobuo Uematsu’s music in particular is some of the most memorable music in the franchise. When I first started getting into game music, his tunes were some of the first pieces that I attempted to learn at the piano. The creation of the Piano Collections albums and the later Piano Opera albums were something that I could enjoy both as a gamer and a pianist. After an almost two year hiatus, a brand new Piano Opera album has finally emerged.

Piano Opera: Final Fantasy VII/VIII/IX is the third album in the Piano Opera series. Despite the name, there is no opera involved in these arrangements. The Piano Opera series focuses on arranging the music of the Final Fantasy games for solo piano. The previous two entries focused on the music from Final Fantasy I through VI. The first album featured music from Final Fantasy I, II, and III, while the second covered the music of Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI. For this third installment, Hiroyuki Nakayama returns as piano arranger and performer for the music of Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX. The pieces for this collection where selected by Uematsu himself, choosing only four entries from each game. What pieces made the final cut and how did Nakayama approach arranging these pieces for piano? Read on to find out.

As someone who has enjoyed listening to and even playing some of the piano arrangements from the earlier Piano Collections albums, I was curious to see how Nakayama would approach the music from these games. Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX have previously received piano arrangements by Shiro Hamaguchi in the Piano Collections series. Previous Piano Opera albums contained a handful of pieces that had been arranged in other projects, but they have also had a healthy dose of previously unexplored material. Even when retreading the same pieces, Nakayama often takes a different approach when arranging the selections for the piano. In many cases he ends up writing more complex variations for the music in question. The selections on this album from Final Fantasy IX in particular are pieces that have already received piano covers on earlier projects. Even so, Nakayama’s new arrangements are fresh takes on these well loved works.

The entries from Final Fantasy VII avoid covering the same pieces from the Piano Collections album, for the most part. On this album we are treated to “Fight on!,” “Cosmo Canyon,” “Words Drowned by Fireworks,” and “Opening – Bombing Mission.” The newer version of “Cosmo Canyon” has a slightly more aggressive vibe than its Piano Collections predecessor. The rhythm gets quite a bit of emphasis, especially towards the track’s opening. The other pieces from Final Fantasy VII like “Fight On!” and “Opening – Bombing Mission” have a great amount of energy, with a good dose of piano pyrotechnics occurring in the extreme upper and lower register of the piano. One of my favorite pieces from Final Fantasy VII on this album is “Words Drowned by Fireworks.” For those who may be a little hazy on where this music shows up in the original game, this piece plays during the “date” scene at the Gold Saucer. I’m sure a good portion of my enjoyment of this track is a result of my nostalgia kicking in. It’s a brief but intimate scene in the game, that ends up carrying a lot of emotional weight if it plays out in a particular way. It’s a beautifully piece of music from the game and I’m glad that Uematsu selected it to be arranged for this album.

The music selections from Final Fantasy VIII give us some of the most climactic and intense music on this album. Final Fantasy VIII gets two battle pieces arranged in this installment.“The Man With the Machine Gun,” and “Force Your Way” are all exciting tracks that work very well on solo piano. A more relaxing track “Ami” along with a climactic track “Liberi Fatali” are also included from the Final Fantasy VIII repertoire. “The Man With the Machine Gun” starts off with a slow and steady intro and avoids launching into intense battle like variations until 1’ 17” mark. The track continues to build in intensity, with more complex accompaniment patterns slowly being added to it. “Liberi Fatali” and “Force Your Way” on the other hand, both start off with a bang. These arrangements end up being some of the most intense pieces on the album. The low rumbling bass notes quite often take the memorable battle melodies for a spin, with the higher register of the piano providing rapid and decorative accompaniment. The track “Ami,” which begins this Piano Opera album, is a very light and elegant take on the Final Fantasy VIII “friendship” theme. The main difference in this version, in comparison to its Piano Collections counterpart, is that the variations and accompaniment are a little more complex. There is also more bass presence in the overall sound, giving a much warmer tone to the entire track.

The music selections from Final Fantasy IX, as previously mentioned, cover a lot of pieces that have already received various interpretations. With the exception of “Festival of the Hunt,” all of the chosen Final Fantasy IX pieces were already covered on one of the Piano Collections albums. The tracks “Not Alone,” “Roses of May,” and “Melodies of Life” are all fan favorites from the Final Fantasy IX soundtrack, so it should be no surprise that they reemerge on this album. Even though piano arrangements have already existed for this music, these new versions by Nakayama are by no means derivative or unwelcome additions. The new arrangements stay true to the original source material but are different enough to sound fresh to listeners and fans of the other piano arrange albums.

It’s here, with the Final Fantasy IX music, that the differences in interpretation of the Final Fantasy music, between Hamaguchi and Nakayama, becomes the most apparent. In the Piano Collections series, Shiro Hamaguchi typically has lighter and simpler arrangements of the music, with the exception perhaps being some of the battle themes. Hamaguchi also has a tendency to stay in the piano’s higher register, particularly with the melody, but he also adds some harmonic complexity with the occasional use of jazz chord progressions. Nakayama by comparison makes a wider use of the piano’s range, even in the smaller more intimate pieces. His variations and arrangements on Uematsu’s music also tend to be more complicated and heavily embellished. While he doesn’t expand on the harmonies as much as Hamaguchi, he does manage to build a lot of variation from the original material. I honestly can’t say if I have a preference over one or the other. In the end, they both provide interesting and well arranged interpretations of Uematsu’s music.

One thing that stuck out to me when listening to the various piano arrange albums was the overall sound quality. There seems to be a warmer bass sound to the recordings on this new Piano Opera album. I’m not sure how much of this is the sound mixing and how much is Nakayama’s arranging, but there’s definitely a deeper resonance to the piano’s sound than on the Piano Collections albums. If I have one issue with the album’s overall sound it’s that there’s too much reverb some of the tracks. This is particularly noticeable whenever a loud chord is played with a sudden silence following it. The notes just ring out and echo way more than they really should. It’s by no means a deal breaker, but I noticed it almost every time to the point of it becoming distracting.

When all is said and done, Piano Opera: Final Fantasy VII/VIII/IX is a brilliant piano arrange album. Each selection from the games is beautifully arranged and performed on the piano. Even with tracks that have received piano covers in the past, Hiroyuki Nakayama brings a distinct and fresh sound to Uematsu’s music. There’s plenty of variety, ranging from intense battle themes to romantic and intimate pieces, from some of the best moments of the Final Fantasy series. While there may be some quirks with the sound on certain pieces, the overall quality of the album is excellent. This piano arrange album covers some great music from the Final Fantasy series and it’s a must have for any fan of Nobuo Uematsu’s music. Piano Opera: Final Fantasy VII/VIII/IX can be purchased on iTunes or CD Japan.

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