Final Fantasy Symphonic Suite :: Review by Chris
Final Fantasy Symphonic Suite was first released all the way back in May 1989, making it the very first in a long line of arranged albums to be released for the Final Fantasy series. It is fascinating to consider that it is still widely considered to be perhaps the best orchestrated album the series has seen despite this. Do not be fooled into thinking this is thanks to 'old skool' nostalgia's sake, as while this album does offer a lot of it, its success is primarily thanks to its epic orchestration, refined arranging, and high quality symphonic performance.
The track list is built up on scenes, seven in total, which assimilate together to produce a symphonic suite. Each scene is a symphonic arrangement of themes from All Sounds of Final Fantasy I and II, with "Scene III", "Scene V," and "Scene VI" being three-piece medleys and the rest being arrangements of one original. On the whole, the track list is satisfying it is balanced, well-selected, and features more than a few old favourites. However, there were many other themes that deserved arranging "Floating Ship", "Cornelia Castle" and "Castle Pandemonium" to name a few and, at just under 40 minutes in length, the suite could have really been bulked up with the addition of a couple more scenes. In addition, it is a little peculiar that one peculiar thing that the series' two classic opening themes, the "Prelude" and "Final Fantasy I Opening Theme" (now known as the "Final Fantasy" theme) actually appear in the middle of the album while it is the "Final Fantasy II Main Theme" that actually opens the suite. Still, despite sounding strange in theory, it works very well in practice by getting straight to the heart of the action.
The suite's arrangers are Takayuki Hattori and Katsuhisa Hattori, a father and son duo clearly mastered in the art of arranging. The fundamentals of their arrangements are offering plain good orchestration, using fundamentally Nobuo Uematsu's strong original melodies just like they should do, rather than transforming the originals completely into new and different styles. Some may criticise the simplicity of such arrangements for their lack of transformative features, but it is important to realize that staying close to originals is the best way to attract fans, rather than alienating them with something unfamiliar. Even though their orchestration is hardly Wagnerian, it is executed to an extremely high quality with the instrumental choices being wonderful throughout. This orchestration makes their arrangements simply epic in nature, particularly when vocals are added, and its ability to enthral sweeps away any modern successors effortlessly.
Unlike most Final Fantasy arranged albums, rather than being a studio performance, this suite was recorded during a live concert from Japan's highly prominent Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. Indeed, this does bring coughs and cheers from time to time from the audience, as well as the occasional minor mistakes that any live performance has, but these problems are hardly as prominent as they were with the 20020220 - Music from Final Fantasy. Besides, the fact it is a live performance adds to the whole aura and uniqueness of this album, making it even more special and marked in game music's history.
1) Scene I
This arrangement of the "Final Fantasy II Main Theme" is best described as being 'epic'. Beginning slowly with a long suspended note of a tuba as the audience gets time to sit back, our minds are left to anticipate the awe that is about to emerge from the shadows. As the cymbals momentously crash, the theme proudly explodes into what is my uttermost favourite piece of orchestration of the series. The strings impressively sing out the famous main theme and they fill the concert hall with their expressive and beautiful tones. A full choir supports them in their progression and they add a huge amount to the track, expressing so much magnificence with their fine resonant vocals. As the vocals grow to become increasingly more integral parts of the performance, so do the brass section, which leads in several places once they move away from the countermelody they initially provide. As the textures are subtly thickened, a most evocative chromatic shift marks the recapitulation of the main theme, bringing about an immensely powerful climax to the piece. Nobuo Uematsu's original melodies were left rather untouched by this arrangement and quite rightfully so, but the Hattoris ensure that this arrangement goes way beyond its original and into a full-blown masterpiece through their artful and profound orchestration. The theme's strong instrumental contrasts, the superb development, and the enriching emotion are all major winning features that makes this arrangement pretty much unbeatable! (10/10)
2) Scene II
Although not as good as the previous track, this track, none other than Final Fantasy II's "Battle Scene 2," is most definitely a highly fascinating creation nonetheless. For a battle track, this track seems unusually thin in texture, which is a blessing, considering the tendency for battle themes to descend into a cluttered mess when arranged. Consequently, rather than relying on an in-your-face instrumental racket to build up the tense battle-like atmosphere for this track, the Hattoris rely on much more subtle melodic and harmonic methods. Among the most notable of these is the addition of lots of chromatic harmonies as well as the addition of frequent dissonant clashes that are used so constructively throughout the track. In addition various synth 'monster' noises are well integrated throughout the track adding to its strong atmosphere further. However, I mostly agree with the general consensus of the population that the synth drumbeats detract heavily from the overall success of the track. While they add a battle beat to the track at the beginning, they quickly get annoying and repetitive as they drone relentlessly on and on. Yawn! Thankfully, these fade and are less prominent in the last part of the track. Here, a new crisis motif is added that eventually leads the track into what is a rather unexpected and seemingly unfinished conclusion. Overall, though, in spite a few quarrels, this is most definitely an excellent track and another example of the Hattoris' top-class arranging. (8/10)
3) Scene III
This track is a superbly arranged medley of three Final Fantasy themes, namely its "Opening Theme," "Town," and "Matoya's Cave." It begins with the "Opening Theme" (more commonly known in later soundtracks as the "Final Fantasy" theme). I felt this was by far its best orchestral treatment to date, despite the numerous arrangements it has been given as the Final Fantasy series progressed. Why? Once again, it is thanks to the Hattoris' use of orchestration. The melodic and harmonic contrasts are suitably subtle to ensure the clarity and memorability of Uematsu's original melodies are not lost, while the careful instrumental contrasts, particularly between strings and brass, add to its great overall grandeur and eloquence.
The statement of the "Town" theme is also well crafted with the transition from the strong boldness of the "Opening Theme" to the gentle softness of this theme being so delicately crafted and carefully gradated. Although the "Town" theme is the least memorable part of this trio of themes (mainly due to the fact its occurrence is relatively short), its addition is still a beautiful one. The woodwind use is particularly charming. The transition into "Matoya's Cave" is even more notable musically the gradual transition from "Town" is so smooth that it is almost indistinguishable. "Matoya's Cave" is probably the most rounded and atmospheric melody Uematsu created for Final Fantasy and it works even better in this album thanks to the Hattoris' appropriate use of instrumental contrasts and addition of vocals.
The best part of the whole scene, however, is the great surge of energy as the scene undergoes the magnificent progression from this theme into the "Opening Theme" again. It's just sensational. The recapitulation of the main theme is an effective way to round the scene off. Furthermore, it gives the track a rounded structure to fall back on this gives it a more clarity and ensures it isn't entirely through-composed. Anyway, enough has been said about this track now. It's simply a masterpiece! (10/10)
4) Scene IV
This scene is the symphonic arrangement of the Final Fantasy II "Finale" (perhaps better known as "Love Will Grow" from the second Final Fantasy Vocal Collection). Just like the original, it starts off calmly, but is enhanced by the impressionistic touches the Hattoris add along the way. This introduction is primarily based upon a descending harp and glockenspiel arpeggio pattern against the fittingly thin accompaniment of the 'cello's long bass notes. Although nothing too fascinating, it allows the statement of the main theme within the first minute of the piece to have much greater impact than it would have originally done. Just like the rest of the album, as a result of the Hattoris' subtle orchestration, the main melody here is refined to become even more enchanting than that of Nobuo Uematsu's highly noteworthy original. The instrumentation in itself is very similar to what we've heard before, thus being nothing too unusual but entirely appropriate for what it represents. It essentially consists of the violins leading, the 'cello accompanying, and the brass providing a countermelody. However, despite the fact it is so similar to instrumentation otherwise heard in the album, the tones played on these instruments are so pure and resonant that the overall magnificence of this scene is hardly hindered. Another key feature of this arrangement is the use of dynamics, manipulated and gradated to a stunning level so that both its soft interlude around the 3:00 mark and its majestic build-up prior to the end of the piece generate the enormous effects the Hattoris had intended. Although overall this theme is less distinctive in nature than some of the earlier themes, its quality and orchestration is just as good. I would recommend it to everyone! (10/10)
5) Scene V ~ Prelude
"Scene V," a medley of the "Prelude" theme, as well as Final Fantasy's "Main Theme" and "Chaos' Temple," is probably the album's most famous and notable creation, as well as the album's longest track, topping up at 8 minutes 14 seconds. It opens strongly with a bright fanfare-like melody that is entirely unique to this album. As one would expect, this part is led mainly by brass and percussion, but it also features an easily overlooked string interlude between the two statements of the militaristic theme.
The arrangement then fades into silence and a solo harp gently emerges to play the arpeggio pattern that harmonises the famous "Prelude" theme. A solo flute player plays the airy melody that protrudes over this harp with such tenderness and virtuosity that it is without doubt the best individual performance of the album. It almost seems a shame that the textures have to be gradually thickened as the full orchestra is added after this considering this duo performance was so stunning. Still, these delicate and pure tones are not entirely lost as the progression from the "Prelude" to the "Final Fantasy Main Theme" is gradual and effortless. I have to confess that I never had great passion towards the Uematsu's "Main Theme," but thanks to yet more orchestral mastery from the Hattoris, this arrangement left a huge impact upon me. This is because of the amount of feeling it brings across, being both revealing, sad, and hopeful in one big gracious blend.
As the scene moves into the imposing brass fanfare, the "Chaos' Temple" theme, the mild tones preceding it are swiftly erased into something much more adventurous and bombastic in nature. This grandeur increases once the strings harmonise the brass with a most dashing ostinato pattern after briefly taking the lead; the scene eventually reaches its long-awaited climax once the full orchestra joins in dramatic fashion and the percussion bombard away in perhaps the most heartfelt part of the album. Being the intelligent musicians that they are, the Hattoris are very careful to ensure that the performance doesn't become an 'in-your-face' one by making a much needed reprise back to the "Opening Theme" melody, one much faster in nature than before and complete with some fascinating imitative structures. It gradually rounds off as it reaches its eventual end heralded by the much-needed addition of some vocals. As you can really see, the creativity, refinement, and intensity of this theme is incredible and it really is no wonder it is so highly acclaimed as it is. (10/10)
6) Scene VI
The final medley of the suite may not quite defeat "Scene V ~ Prelude" in terms of its overall quality, but is still a great addition to the album. Its most prominent feature is the way it gradually darkens the Hattoris clearly decided to structure it so that it progresses in an almost programmatic way. It begins lightly with the famous "Gurgu Volcano" theme from Final Fantasy. The instrumentation use here is appropriately sparse the Eb Clarinet leads the way with its character-filled and well-articulated solo and is accompanied delicately by some less distinguished counterpoint from the Bb clarinets and trumpets. Eventually, the melody falls into the hands of the pizzicato strings and, while they may lack the coherency a solo instrument such as the Eb Clarinet has to offer, they add a certain buoyancy and panache to the scene.
The Hattoris lose no time in darkening the theme past this, however, by making a rather brash, yet hardly unmusical transition into Final Fantasy II's "Dungeon" theme. This mysterious and brooding theme has a lot of atmosphere brewing within it. This is continually strengthened by the way the textures progressively and finely thicken up to its eventual and long-awaited transition this time into the evil "Imperial Army's Theme" from Final Fantasy II. This arrangement is greatly foreboding in nature and is by far the darkest addition to the suite. String use, in particular, enforces this atmosphere especially once the glissando scale passages emerge. Unfortunately, however, this theme never really properly concludes, unlike the other scenes, and is left on a rather interrupted note. However, in some ways, this is appropriate, considering it is an ideal preparation of the last scene of the suite that follows it. (9/10)
7) Scene VII
The suite concludes in a similar way to how it opens through a single and wholly beautiful arrangement of a highly melodious theme. This one is the "Rebel Army's Theme" from Final Fantasy II. The first minute of the scene mainly consists of the simple homophonic textures of the high strings singing the melody while accompanied by the sustained notes in the lower strings; however, at the 50 second mark, in typical orchestral fashion, the brass take over the main theme playing with even greater sense of pride and determination. Still, while such instrumentation and texture is clichéd and expected, it works well in emphasising Uematsu's top class original melodies and assuring a poignant piece of music is created. The musicality of such an arrangement only really begins to become evident in the sensitively arranged interlude section that follows. considering that this is entirely unique to this arrangement and demonstrates the Hattoris' careful interweaving between homophonic and polyphonic textures. From this, with the roar of a triumphant trumpet fanfare, the main melody is revived in its thickest texture with strings, brass, and vocals all joining together in one. Such grandeur and magnificence is sustained throughout until the end of the piece and is supported by a modulation to what appears to be the key a semitone higher to maintain interest. A small, yet entirely appropriate, coda finishes the piece with some sustained chords while the grand rounds of applause from the audience in the concert hall gives the cheers this suite deserves. Again, this is a reasonably subtle arrangement and its overall spectacular nature is left relatively hidden considering the sensitivity and modesty of the Hattoris' great arranging skills. However, it most definitely brings the album to a strong and warm conclusion and cannot be forgotten by those who listen to it. (10/10)
As you can see from reading the track-by-track reviews, the Final Fantasy Symphonic Suite is an orchestral masterpiece amassed with some of the best quality and most subtle attempts of arranging available in the Final Fantasy series' discography. Even though it was the series' first arranged album, its high quality makes it continue to be considered as the very best by many fans. It is atmospheric, poignant, and nostalgic throughout and features some marvellous use of instrumentation, textural contrasts, and dynamic gradation. Such musicality is particularly noticed in the unforced transitions between themes in the three medley scenes. Some will find it a little traditional while others will abhor a few moments (e.g. the drum machine use in "Scene II"), but most will love it from start to finish.
Overall Score: 8/10