Piano Pieces SF2 ~ Rhapsody on a Theme of SF2 :: Review by Aevloss
Masashi Hamauzu's work on the SaGa Frontier II Original Soundtrack was, for the most part, very impressive. The album contained light-hearted tunes, experimental pieces, and a variety of other genres of music of a sophistication that few other composers could match. One of the most pleasing sounds on the album was undoubtedly the piano work; employed to different effect throughout, Hamauzu demonstrated his masterful skill with the instrument. It is of little surprise that the composer decided to release an arrange album with the piano music taking precedence; Piano Pieces SF2 ~ Rhapsody on a Theme of SaGa Frontier 2 was the end result, but does it live up to the high expectations one would have after hearing the Original Soundtrack?
The first eighteen tracks of the album are strictly piano arrangements, performed by artists Mikiko Saiki, Naoko Endo, Michiko Minakata, Daisuke Hara, and Daisuke Karasuda and scored for the instrument by Masashi Hamauzu.
Mikiko Saiki begins the album with two arrangements that make a rather unpredictable introduction to the album; both "'α' 1" and "'α' 2" don't really utilise the main theme of SaGa Frontier 2 a great deal, which was so heavily relied upon in the soundtrack itself. Hamauzu appears to want to make this a CD in its own right and although the tracks stay true to the originals on the soundtrack, he has chosen not to use the main theme any more than necessary. '"'α' 2" makes use of the familiar chord progression found in the "Tobal" theme from the Original Soundtrack, but Hamauzu's delicate arrangmenet makes it a more soothing listen than the original.
"'α' 3" is a very nice light-hearted arrangement performed by Naoko Endo, and has that distinct SaGa Frontier II sound which made the original so good. As ever, the arranger's skill is made evident through the complexity, thoughtfulness and consciously crafted styling alongside the manipulation of harmonies that makes each track distinctive. Hamauzu's fourth arrangement (played by Endo once again), "'α' 4" is slightly more impressionistic and ambitious than its predecessors, sounding dark and frantic at the one-minute mark, before shifting to a contrastingly playful tone for the ending.
Michiko Minakata plays five of Hamauzu's renditions on the album, and this is more than any of the other piano performers. His first work is "'β' 1," an arrangement of the "Rosary" theme. I enjoyed the piece on the Original Soundtrack, and though this does little to change the original, the higher sections convey a welcome nostalgia and retain the charm the initial track had, even though it is hardly one of the more complex additions to the CD. "'β' 3," is one of Endo's most sophisticated performances and though short, it certainly does show off Hamauzu's ability at arranging.
Although "'β' 4" is a rather uninspiring arrangement that sounds like it was taken directly from the original soundtrack, Minakata goes out on a strong note with his performance of the "Arranger" theme. The original was one of my favourite tracks on the SaGa Frontier II soundtrack and the piano version is just as well crafted and is equally impressive as a standalone piece of work. Hamauzu takes a subtle approach to the arrangement in that in most ways it mirrors the original, with only the synth instruments being replaced and scored for the piano.
Tracks ten and eleven see the return of player Naoko Endo, who collaborates with Mikikio Saiki. The interpretation of the "Interlude" rag was particularly notable and completely outdoes the original. Daisuke Hara and Daisuke Karasuda collaborate to perform three of Hamauzu's particularly admirable piano arrangements. "'γ' 2" is a straight-forward but effective version of the "Homeless" piece, which still has that playfulness that is similar to that of "Enigmatic Scheme" from the composer's work on Unlimited SaGa. "'γ' 3" is a commendable rendition of the original and is one of my favourite pieces on the album for its forcible, thematic nature.
The following track, "'+4' 1," is Hara's only singular performance, and the proceeding three pieces were performed by Daisuke Karasuda; unfortunately these did not appeal to me nearly as much as the tracks on which they collaborated, and Hamauzu's arrangements were not defining in their quality, sometimes feeling a little reckless and not as well constructed as those that came before. That does not mean to say they are bad however, just that after listening to fourteen other piano pieces these works failed to stand out very much.
The first of the "Rhapsody on a Theme..." tracks, an arrangement of "Romance," rekindled my interest completely. The piece is truly amazing; the piano, the strings and the brass instruments sound marvellous together rendered more like a concerto for piano and orchestra. Hamauzu's piece certainly recaptures your attention with the bombastic introduction to the rhapsodic finale, and holds it steadfast until the end of the album. One might consider, after listening to the six "Rhapsody..." pieces, that the album would have been even better if each track was orchestrated in a similar way. The instrumentation is impeccable, the arrangements creative and it really is a perfect way to end the CD. Track 23, an arrangement of the "Prelude," is a personal favourite; it sticks close to the original "Prelude" track from SaGa Frontier 2, but it is performed in a way that makes it even more grand and seamlessly epic, where Hamauzu's harmonic style shines through more than ever. The piece is intricate, powerful and is noticeably well layered. Could any other video game composer create a piece quite like this? It is, undoubtedly, a masterful work.
When Hamauzu composed the score for SaGa Frontier 2, he said that he wanted to assert his own 'musical identity'. This album has allowed him to expand on his original compositions and render them in a classical style; harmonies have been altered and instrumentation has been changed, but Hamauzu's style is evident throughout; it is at this point in his career that I feel his seemingly immeasurable talent was made apparent. Although work he has made since is arguably better, both the soundtrack and this arrange album were significant achievements when one considers the time they were released.
I think that overall, this CD is superior to the three individual discs of the original soundtrack, as each arranged track is of a consistently high standard. As a whole collection however, the original contains a greater variety of style and makes easier listening (especially for those who prefer Hamauzu's more upbeat and experimental work). Anyone who likes Hamauzu or piano music in general would most probably enjoy listening to this great album. It even contains the musical score for the eighteen piano tracks, so this is certainly a worthy purchase if you want to learn how to play SaGa Frontier 2 music for the piano. While this particular edition of the album is no longer available, following the bankruptcy of publisher DigiCube, there is now a new edition by Square Enix featuring a bonus track. You can be sure that it qualifies as one of the most musically profound arrange albums on the market, and that Hamauzu's high standard is ever present.
Overall Score: 8/10