20020220 - Music from Final Fantasy :: Review by Dave
Game music concerts have been abundant in recent times, but back when 20020220 - Music from Final Fantasy was announced, the only Final Fantasy concert prior to this was Final Fantasy Symphonic Suite, which occurred a whole thirteen years earlier. The concert could be described as the first in the long line of Final Fantasy concerts that were soon to follow and it was an excellent way to start a mini-revolution. With largely excellent full-orchestral arrangements, crafted elegantly by series' arranger Shiro Hamaguchi, and sometimes strong performances from the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, this well-attended Japan-only event was so popular that it even received a separate album release, to be reviewed here. It does, however, suffer from inconsistency in terms of the quality of performances and a funny trend becomes quickly evident.
The recording of the concert begins with the sound of the orchestra tuning, an addition that sets the scene of the concert effectively, despite being one most would skip. The first performance, however, is "Liberi Fatali," essentially a live performance of Final Fantasy VIII's fully orchestrated and operatic opening theme with only minor adjustments to fit the context of a contest. Though made dramatic by the rich forces used and dynamic variety, the performance is less impressive than the pre-recorded version featured on the Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack. It lacks clarity from the orchestra and the choir suffers from significant intonation problems. It did, however, impress the fans and, as many people's definitive Final Fantasy opening theme, it was an appropriate way to introduce the concert.
The classic "Theme of Love" from Final Fantasy IV was the next arrangement to be heard, a significant improvement on the many previous arrangements of the theme. Though traditionally crafted, much like many of Hamaguchi's orchestrations, the way it manages to be passionate yet sensitive makes it a beautiful, albeit somewhat overstated, interpretation of Final Fantasy IV's subtle love story. After a short speech from Masakazu Morita (Tidus) and Mayuko Aoki (Yuna), several more classic themes are revisited in the "Final Fantasy I-III Medley," perhaps Hamaguchi's nod to the influential Final Fantasy Symphonic Suite. The progression witnessed in this 8:24 collection of themes is especially good, intensification being evident between the sweet harp tones of "The Prelude" that open and the grand bras-led finale "Rebel Army Theme." Its biggest highlights were the rich interpretation of "Matoya's Cave" and the sweet rendition of Final Fantasy III's "Elia, the Maiden of Water." The "Chocobo" theme was less convincing, though a fan pleaser nonetheless, while the "Final Fantasy I Main Theme" remained a classic, even if its arrangement was fairly plain.
One of the most eagerly anticipated performances would have been "Aerith's Theme," an emotional classic that somewhat disappoints here. This arrangement was first featured on the Final Fantasy VII Reunion Tracks album and, just like "Liberi Fatali," its initial performance was much superior. While most forces suffice and the strength of Hamaguchi's arrangement still comes across, it's all too easy to notice how the violins never seem to release the full emotional power that the piece's hopeful yet saddening melodic progressions could offer. More disappointing was the next theme, "Don't Be Afraid," which could have been a classic were it not for the unpolished performance provided. The first section is ridiculously fast and the tempo goes up and down like a yo-yo, indicating lack of rehearsal time and poor conducting, ultimately resulting in the steadiness that contributed to the intensity of Hamaguchi's Final Fantasy VIII Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec no longer being evident. The theme is simply unsettling for the wrong reasons, and its end a few timpani beats that bare no relevance to the original key really sums up the extent of its failure. Could all the performances be this degradatory?
Fortunately "Tina" demonstrates an emotive, well-paced, and acoustically balanced performance, showing not everything is bleak. Despite being shorter and less stylistically distinct than the Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale, Hamaguchi's interpretation of this theme is refined and concise, emphasising the quality of the main melody and featuring some really especially strong sections like 1:20 where violins play an inspirational accompaniment to a dazzling motif. It's with the subsequent arrangement, Final Fantasy V's "Dear Friends," that a startling trend becomes apparent: Hamaguchi's orchestrations of the themes he didn't arrange for past original scores, the Reunion Tracks, and Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec almost always have much superior performances and seem generally more suited for live performance. Scrapping Nobuo Uematsu's lengthy guitar introduction from Final Fantasy V Dear Friends' arrangement of the theme, Hamaguchi gets straight to the point by opening with the main melody on a solo oboe before moving into a touching wind passage with pizzicato strings accompaniment. The second half of the track sees the introduction of Kiyotsugu Amano as the acoustic guitarist, and the arrangement becomes even more special. It was no wonder that the subsequent US Final Fantasy concert tour was entitled after this piece.
The first batch of arrangements prior to the interval concludes with an orchestration of Final Fantasy IX's "Vamo' Alla Flamenco" in a suitably Spanish-influenced style. Perhaps Hamaguchi's greatest arrangement to date, its biggest asset is the superb exposition of the melodic line with the acoustic guitar from Amano, introduced in the previous track. Beyond this, it's filled with so many textural and harmonic contrasts that it nevers seems to lose its sense of direction and, despite continually retaining melodic emphasis, is always rich, dramatic, and captivating. And, don't forget, Final Fantasy IX never had an orchestral album. The trend continues here and the performance of the soloists, along with the orchestra as a whole, is just about faultless technically and really emphasises the arrangement's richness. Hope remains...
Following the interval, a contrast is provided by a series of piano tracks, performed by Final Fantasy X Piano Collections' highly proficient pianist Aki Kuroda. Masashi Hamauzu's "At Zanarkand" arrangement opens the second half, and, though the arrangement is identical to the Final Fantasy X Piano Collections version, as simplistic as ever, this does not undermine its beauty. While the theme's orchestration in later concerts was welcome, fans remember "At Zanarkand" as a piano theme and always will; this was largely about pleasing the fans, so change and variety could come later. The following theme, the luscious piano arrangement of "Yuna's Decision," is less well-known to the casual fan, but equally satisfying, the watery textures of Hamauzu's piano music being aptly reflected once more. The climax to these tracks, however, a mini-piano concerto interpretation of "Love Grows," is somewhat underwhelming, though not because of Kuroda's performance, rather the inability for the orchestra to interpret the music they were given with confidence. It feels meagre, lacking passion or power, and, though the emphasis on Kuroda is welcome, at times it feels like she is pulling the whole orchestra along. It's another example of the trend, given this came from Final Fantasy VIII Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec.
The theory is contradicted with "Suteki da ne (Isn't It Beautiful?), however, amusingly enough. After listening to the versions of the theme on Final Fantasy X: Suteki da ne - Rikki over and again, something about the concert performance was much more special. Rikki's voice was more subdued here and much warmer, allowing human expression to really pour out, while the orchestra provided a fine support. Another Final Fantasy diva, Emiko Shiratori, appears in the other pop ballad on the concert, "The Place I'll Return to Someday ~ Melodies of Life." Shiratori shows considerable competence as a live performer and the orchestra provide elegant accompaniment, though the introduction of the theme with "The Place I'll Return to Someday" doesn't really fit, and, despite Hamaguchi's orchestration improving its accessibility, the transition from the two themes is quite harsh. Saving "melodies of Life" till the end and including it directly alongside "Final Fantasy," just like in the Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack, would have been more welcome.
The conclusion to the album features the most disappointing arrangements of all, unfortunately. "One Winged Angel" sounds awkward and chaotic, partly because the arrangement used, from the Reunion Tracks, suffered from a lot of abruptness and poor transitions in the first place and considerably paled in comparison to Nobuo Uematsu's original theme; however, the problems with the choir's intonation and pathetic size only worsen the experience and the force as a whole are even more counterproductive to the quality of the piece than in "Liberi Fatali". Just how long did they have to rehearse for this concert? Excusing the two choral themes, "The Man with the Machine Gun" wins hands-down in the competition for worst performance. The main problem is in the first minute, where there are big problems with setting the pace. Although the orchestra starts off at the right tempo, the drum kit that is used in the background totally spoils any rhythmic impetus that the performers once created, requiring the orchestra to engage in an ever so painful accelerando followed by a gradual ritardando to catch up. Beyond this, it's a decent rendition of another Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec arrangement, though Hamaguchi would almost certainly like to turn time back here and have a second take. The finale, a performance of the grand ending theme "Final Fantasy," is not much of an arrangement, and more of a traditional encore a 'thank you' and 'goodbye' to the audience and also a 'kudos' to Nobuo Uematsu, Shiro Hamaguchi, and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. It's touching and likely very powerful in the concert experience, though not something most would want to revisit.
A concert made exclusively for the fans, 20020220 - Music from Final Fantasy satisfied the audience and proved to be an enjoyable and enlightening experience as an album release. Being the first Final Fantasy concert beyond the extremely well done Final Fantasy Symphonic Suite, there were major technical problems here with sound quality and it is self-evident from listening to the recording that in many of the arrangements the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus were under-rehearsed; indeed, all the Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, and Final Fantasy X themes used, saved for the two pop themes and two solo piano themes, paled in comparison to pre-recorded takes, with performances sometimes being badly paced, unenergetic, or lacking cohesion and direction. It was evident that Hamaguchi was limited for time here and that the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra lacked his guidance while he was focusing on writing Final Fantasy IX and pre-Final Fantasy VII arrangements. That said, his focus on other themes did pay off to a certain extent; "Dear Friends," "Vamo' Alla Flamenco," Tina," "Theme of Love," and the "FFI-III Medley" are enough alone to make this album a satisfactory purpose and worth repeated listens. The more recent More Friends CD is a better quality experience overall and would be the recommended FF concert album purchase to the casual fan, though hardcore fans should still find this very special and nostalgic. As a strong predecessor to superior concert tours like Tour de Japon, Dear Friends, and More Friends, its major place in the history of live game music is undeniable.