Final Fantasy XII: Symphonic Poem "Hope" :: Review by Dave
The first piece of Final Fantasy XII music to be released in an album, Symphonic Poem "Hope" is an 'inspired by' single based on Hitoshi Sakimoto's main theme for the game. The anticipation of this single was immense, particularly after it was revealed it featured maestro violinist Taro Hakase and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, was principally composed by the versatile Yuji Toriyama, and had been split into five movements. While the expectations were varied, they were also high, most using the single as a judge of the quality of the upcoming Final Fantasy XII Original Soundtrack. Were listener's appetites sufficiently nourished for the single to be as aurally satisfying and commercially productive as intended, however?
"1st mov. Overture" wastes no time in setting the scene for the listener; starting with some warping sound effects and a sustained 'cello note, the arrival of a daunting string section almost carries the listener into a scene of sadness, which is then further emphasised by its slow movements and dynamic swells. I found the piece's orchestral and synth contrasts to be very compelling, as it is this fusion that makes the piece far more solid and flowing in nature. Don't forget, however, Taro Hakase's violin mastery, which although is far more evident in later tracks such as "3rd mov. Road of Hope," manages to give the piece a great pull factor and, ultimately, a sense of originality too. Overall, despite its short length, this movement acts as a classic opener and acts as a great atmospheric centre for the rest of the movements to be developed around.
We are then lead straight into the next movement, "2nd mov. March of a Wise Man," set very much in the same nationalistic style that often tends to be a key feature of traditional symphonic poems. It starts off with a gleaming brass section and some very forceful strings, which, although they seem bare at first, come together perfectly to create a pompous atmosphere that is heightened as we grow further into the track. Above all, the dynamic range and timbre created by the horns and violins are what makes this track appealing, as although the overall texture isn't exactly out of the ordinary, the romantic nature that results is both enlightening and forceful. The blend of the two proves to be a key link to future movements on the album, such as the joyous "3rd mov. Road of Hope" and the laid back "4th mov. Romance," and hence it is innovative in nature. The last parts of the track stick out the most, but it is its climactic nature that is its most interesting feature. Timpani end the piece in a pride filled manner, and to be honest, this is the type of ending that I would have expected at the end of the whole symphonic poem. Even still, it becomes obvious why it was used when we move onto the next movement, which is very different in style.
Next up is "3rd mov. Road of Hope," which will probably be the most talked about movement on the album due to the fact that it is far more melodically captivating than the others as well as being well-developed. It starts off light-hearted and joyous, which completely contrasts the militaristic nature of "2nd mov. March of a Wise Man," and with the introduction of the brass section and a majestically played violin, everything is just enhanced further and taken away from the atmosphere introduced in the earlier movements. There are a number of similarities, however; with a strong emphasis on the moving bass and numerous places where a chromatic shift leads us into a new section, the piece is very much like the second movement in terms of structure. Added to this, the dynamic range is just as impressive as in "2nd mov. March of a Wise Man," and ultimately, so are the textures and timbre. Still, it is the melody, however, that is its key feature; carried across each instrument, it is expanded to the highest possibilities by flowing in and out of every region in near-antiphonal goodness.
Indeed, everything in this movement seems to be geared towards enhancing that ever important 'hope' factor, so this means that there is an excessive use of happy-go-lucky violin highs, a pompous use of up-bow jolts and down-bow slides in the accompanying string part, and a dramatic use of the brass. The ending to this part of the tone poem however is slightly more militaristic in nature and actually ends up with a virtuosic violin solo that, although it doesn't last for long, is filled with aggressive glissandos and some effective double-stopping. Although this totally opposes the nature of the earlier part of the movement, the two seem to fit perfectly together just like how "2nd mov. March of a Wise Man" and this movement seem to fit together, in fact. Overall, this movement is probably the most inspiring out of the five in the symphonic poem and we are set well on our way to what could be a classic Final Fantasy opening theme.
The fourth movement, "4th mov. Romance," is again, different in nature to the previous movement, being far more romantic and comprised of lusting harmonies. Although the melody in this movement may not be as epic as in "3rd mov. Road of Hope," it is just as captivating and heart-rending, too. It starts off with a slowly plucked guitar line that gives a very Hawaiian feel with its openness and clear-cut freshness, and when strings come in to accompany the melody, the mood becomes exasperating and very buoyant. Much like in earlier movements, we see the violin take the lead to present a new melody to the listener, and with the accentuation being fantastically placed, it just can't fail, especially when it is equipped further with a great dynamic range. From the start to the end, this is a great movement, and although it is annoyingly short, I find it to be one of my favourites. I have to admit however, that I didn't warm to at first due to the contrasts and build-ups in "3rd mov. Road of Hope" that suggested that it would have been far more dramatic.
Last but not least, we are taken into the final movement of the symphonic poem, and there should be no surprises in that it is a recapitulation of "3rd mov. Road of Hope," which holds the most memorable melody out of each movement. This version, albeit a shorter one, is far more dramatic than the original; yielding some emphatic timpani rolls and an addictive bass line alongside the melody, this theme is far from boring. All of this coupled with some expert violin skills results in what is a great movement to end the whole symphonic poem with. I said earlier that "2nd mov. March of a Wise Man" may have been more appropriately suited to fit the end of the piece with its abrupt ending, but the truth is that it doesn't compare to the glorious heights that "5th mov. Road of Hope ~ Refrain" holds. To me, this classic encore styled recapitulation is a perfect way to end the opening theme.
Despite the length of the album, it easily grew on me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Indeed, I was hoping for something much like the Drag-on Dragoon 2 Original Soundtrack's "Symphonic Poem "Forbidden Prelude"" in terms of style, but you will be pleased to know that the contrasting atmospheres of each of the movements makes it an inspiring listen, despite the fact that it may not be as action-filled or as tense. Added to this, since the theme is likely to be featured on the Original Soundtrack itself, it may be best to wait so that you can get the best of both worlds!
Still, In classic Final Fantasy style, the melodies yielded in this opening theme are stretched to high standards, but fortunately not so much that it reaches a state of elasticity. Added to this, there are a number of superb leitmotifs that we see returning all around the tone poem, for example the melody from "2nd mov. Road of Hope," or even the chromatic shifts introduced in the earlier movements. Overall though, the biggest achievement is that this is the first time that the Final Fantasy main theme has been put into the form of a symphonic poem, and if we're lucky, this might even become a main feature of the series' music. Hats off to Taro Hakase, Yuji Toriyama, and Robin Smith!
Overall Score: 8/10