Final Fantasy XI Premium Box Piano Collections :: Review by Jillian
I've never so much as touched Final Fantasy XI. The online draw and the multiplayer interaction doesn't entice me, and as a result, I've never even sat down and listened to the soundtrack (let alone play the game). But I'm a massive Piano Collections fan, and when I found a piano collection was released in the Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack Premium Box, I searched far and wide and for several hours until I found the CD. And from there, I found the soundtrack versions of the tracks arranged for solo piano to expertly compare. I'm proud of myself for that, and that should lend to a decent review, I hope.
Perhaps because it took me forever to get the pieces, I was a bit disappointed with what I was hearing. The maturation and progression of the Piano Collections series is one of strength, difficulty, and emotion. This soundtrack does none of the above. Rather than following the examples of the later Piano Collections and demonstrating superb arrangement and beautiful difficulty, the soundtrack echoes Sato's style from Final Fantasy IV Piano Collections and Final Fantasy V Piano Colletions; the arrangements are more simplistic and try to capture the beauty of the melody more than anything else. The sudden shift to Satou's style more than a decade ago will surprise listeners and probably disappoint them in a sense as well, seeing as we're used to that superior progression of the series.
Kaoru Ishikawa, the arranger for this title in the popular series, seems to want to feel Naoshi Mizuta's original pieces much like Satou. The pianists Ayumi Iga and Kasumi Oga, however, fail to deliver emotional performances. But then, there are times when Ishikawa, who seems desperately afraid of deviation, is saved by some solid performances from his pianists. Despite these shortcomings, I wouldn't pass up listening to these Piano Collections... if not because you enjoyed the soundtrack, then because, as a Piano Collections aficionado, you're simply curious. An entirely new stand-alone Final Fantasy XI Piano Collections album is due for June release as well.
1) The Federation of Windurst
One of the more popular soundtracks from what I can gather, so there's no surprise it's featured here. The soundtrack version is is chirpy and cheerful and the piano solo starts off in a similar manner, except without the Celtic wind instruments. The piece reminds me heavily of earlier Final Fantasy town themes, and that's echoed in the piano solo, which sounds more like a fan arrangement than a professional one. Enjoyable deviations from the trite melody are interjected here and there without rendering the piece unrecognizable; most notably, when the track becomes more andante and cautious before powerfully bursting into an emotional little segment that is all too short. (6/10)
An interesting track choice, primarily because many different sounds make up the soundtrack version despite the simplistic melody. The transition to the piano, then, is more of a transcription than an arrangement. Despite a loose left hand, there is little originality in the track. Oga's performance lacks any kind of emotion, especially halfway through, when the melody and strong chords of the harmony are played robotically. While the arrangement tries to employ some originality towards the end with a looser melody, the piece fails to capture attention and garner respect. Pass over this one. (3/10)
3) Choc-a-bye Baby
A rather delightful addition to the soundtrack, "Choc-a-bye Baby" is tender, sweet, and somewhat nostalgic. Because it's a lullaby, I imagine the effect would be a bit more impressive if played in a higher key. However, because the melody is the strong point in the piece, "Choc-a-bye Baby" doesn't lose anything in its middle register. The pedal is necessary, and works well when the melody becomes more staccato around the one-minute marker (at least, it's far more effective than in "Moblin Menagerie"). In typical Piano Collections style, the melody is repeated in a higher scale, but also delightfully ad-libs from the melody until it interjects and you knew it was coming, because near-enough every Piano Collections features it the Chocobo theme. The piece as a whole is one of the stronger tracks and very pretty, if somewhat saccharine and simplistic. (8/10)
4) Moblin Menagerie — Movalpolos
"Moblin Menagerie" wouldn't be out of place on Final Fantasy IV Piano Collections. The staccato melody paired with a somewhat halfhearted pedal are reminiscent, at least to me, of "Golbeza, Clad in the Dark" or any other dungeon-esque track. And like Final Fantasy VIII Piano Collections' "Silence and Motion" or Final Fantasy X-2 Piano Collection's "Demise", the piano solo creates a more mystical feel quite different from all three soundtrack's quirky synth-laden tracks. The piece is relatively blasé until about 1:45, when we experience a nice little run, and then picks up again around 2:30, when the melody deviates a bit into a higher scale and more up-tempo quirk. The faster tempo (though hardly fast by piano standards) stays till the end, when pianist Oga goes mystical and mysterious on us with a few echoing, lingering notes, making "Moblin Menagerie" end far better than it began. (7/10)
5) Battle Theme #2
A lackluster duet transcription of a lackluster battle theme. While the Piano Collections series has produced a large amount of excellently arranged battle themes, the piano versions are carried on their performance. Gusto, excitement, anticipation, and adrenaline combine to form stunning battle arrangements just listen to "Decisive Battle" from Final Fantasy X Piano Collections and "Fighting" from Final Fantasy VII Piano Collections. This battle theme lacks a decent arrangement but more importantly Iga and Oga deliver a completely edgeless and bovine performance, devoid of any emotion. Very disappointing entry into the Piano Collections Battle Themes repertoire. (2/10)
6) Faded Memories - Promyvion
I was extremely interested to see how this track would play out on the piano. The soundtrack version is interesting enough but extremely inexact and gets most of its emotion from the various supports of the melody. But upon listening to this version, I was impressed; sultry, mysterious, and cryptic, the clichéd echoing pedaled harmony works very well, evocative of Final Fantasy IV Piano Collections. Iga manages to keep hold of the emotion, building power around the 3:40 marker, holding a 3/4 note and then playing the melody an octave higher. Some broken runs enhance the mysterious feel, but the simplistic arrangement suddenly becomes startlingly evident here. The final part of the piece features a few broken rolls high on the piano scale and then the track abruptly ends. While it's one of the better tracks, I do wish Iga could put a little more feel into the performance. (7/10)
7) Jeweled Boughs
An emotional savior of a solo piece, "Jeweled Boughs" is pleasant, lyrical, and interesting. Boasting one of the better arranged bodies, the arrangement is able to pianistically express the emotions of the soundtrack version. Best and most refreshing of all, Iga gives the first real solid performance on the CD in terms of sentimentality. A lovely piece from the melody's occasional rolls and trills to the interchanging nostalgia and suppressed felicity "Jeweled Boughs" really, really delivers. The arrangement has a simply perfect ending with a simple rolled chord and a few notes thereafter, tying up the album phenomenally. The best track on the CD and the only arrangement I play with the enclosed sheet music book. (9/10)
Despite an enjoyable soundtrack version, the Piano Collections version of "Tu'Lia" seems a bit off. In all actuality, I believe it's because as I've stated before but feel most strongly right here many different elements compose the soundtrack version. The piano version loses some of the emotion in the original version, especially in the beginning; however, I feel that lies in the arrangement, not in Iga's performance, which is actually enjoyable. "Tu'Lia" moseys along until about two minutes into the piece, when the melody is more distinguishable and far more aesthetically pleasing, due in part to a bit of hesitation and loose hand on Iga's part. The chords following the revival of the melody are at first jarring, but enhance the emotion of the piece, which peaks around three minutes. The ending is far more bittersweet than the melody heard in the beginning and middle part, but fits quite well, though I'm not a fan of the solo note at the end. However, I recommend waiting "Tu'Lia" out; the first minute or so isn't anything exciting, but the piece picks up beautifully once it finds comfort in its belly. (8/10)
9) Distant Worlds
The immutable addition to all later Piano Collections tracks the vocal theme. I disliked the original piece, but if we look to arrangements of the past, the piano version of "Distant Worlds" should hold itself up. However, I really wish Ishikawa would have experimented more here; part of what makes the piano solos of the vocal tracks is the fact that piano solo is not a transcription, but an arrangement. "Distant Worlds" plays out like a more loosely played but identical version to the original piece whereas "Melodies of Life" from Final Fantasy IX Piano Collections and "1000 Words" from Final Fantasy X-2 Piano Collections worked well because they deviated from the original. Iga tries to salvage the arrangement with a surprisingly tender performance, but overall "Distant Worlds" belongs in a distant world. (5/10)
10) Vana'diel March #4
March themes are successful because they're a bit of a rarity in the Final Fantasy world. After my experiences with the rest of the soundtrack, I felt, after listening to a very well-done soundtrack version of the piece, that the piano version probably wouldn't hold its own very well. "Vana'diel March #4" is right at average; certainly more enjoyable than most of the CD, but not quite impressionable. A strong harmony would have worked wonders on this arrangement, but simplistic too-quiet chords fail to deliver a stirring march. On the plus side, the lack of decent harmony emphasizes the decent melody od "Vana'diel March #4", which has enough emotion in it to deter the listener away from noticing the lack of harmony. The ending is truly great, though. By far the best ending of any track on the CD, and one of great power that is built up in strong chords and echoing 16th notes. The final chords could have been more bombastic, but that lies more in Iga and Oga's duet performance. (7/10)
Whether it's due to the MMORPG genre or the lack of Nobuo Uematsu, there's a certain change in the music of Final Fantasy XI. The original versions of many pieces lack a great deal of melody, making the piano transition much more difficult. In the Premium Box version of the Final Fantasy XI Piano Collections, the pieces with the most melody were chosen to be arranged, regardless on the decency of the track itself in the cases of "The Federation of Windurst" and "Moblin Menagerie - Movalpolos". As the series continues to flourish in our technological society, the sound quality improves. No longer do we have to listen to the beeps and blips of NES days, but we can experience a whole symphony of instruments and synthesizers from our own console. Thus, many pieces will take on beauty and life of their own through the number of instruments used in creating the piece. While that's good in the long run, especially seeing how the soundtrack is the main musical factor whereas the Piano Collections is an excess treat, that can allude to a certain loss of quality in the Piano Collections.
Of course, all of that can be prevented by a team of skilled pianists and composers. I can only hope and pray that Kaoru Ishikawa does not return for the all-new stand-alone version of the Final Fantasy XI Piano Collections and that Ayumi Iga and Kasumi Oga are replaced with more passionate pianists. A team of a Louis Leerink-like pianist (the brilliantly-handed man behind the performances of Final Fantasy IX Piano Collections) and the entire arrangement team from Final Fantasy X-2 Piano Collections could save the second collection. But if the Premium Box version is any indicator of the fate of the beloved series, the stand-alone Final Fantasy XI Piano Collections fans will certainly be something to lament over. I'd suggest waiting for reviews of this album before purchasing the Premium Box unless you're a big fan of Final Fantasy XI's various soundtracks.
Overall Score: 7/10