Dragon Quest I Symphonic Suite :: Review by Juan2Darien
This will be the first of a set of reviews of the entire Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite collection, so I will spend this overview mostly explaining the format I will be using. First off, this will be a track-by-track review, focusing first on the piece itself, then focusing on the various performances of that piece. I understand that there were in fact three performances of almost every Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite, so I will cover each of them.
For the Dragon Quest I Symphonic Suite, there was a recording of these pieces by the Tokyo Strings Ensemble with additional brass and percussion players, which I consider now to be the gold standard of most of these pieces. This is a well-known and historic recording made in 1986, although it is hard to find today. I will therefore mainly focus on the performances that are perhaps easier to obtain. These are the recordings by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which were released in 1994 and remastered in 2000 for a CD also featuring the Dragon Quest II Symphonic Suite. Finally, there was a performance by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra that was released in 2007.
Having explained that, Dragon Quest I was, obviously, Koichi Sugiyama's first time working with the Dragon Quest team. His first effort is rather simplistic, although fairly consistently enjoyable. It may not be a masterpiece through and through, but I'm betting neither was Uematsu's first Final Fantasy title, to choose another example. The orchestrations in later Symphonic Suites took more chances and some were downright experimental, but this first one played it rather safe. What results is an album that should be considered a warm-up for the awesome music for future Dragon Quest titles.
After I've finished each track description, I will give four ratings separated by a slash. The first will be for the track's enjoyment in general. The others will represent the quality of the performance by the Tokyo Strings Ensemble, London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra respectively, not necessarily consiering the enjoyment level of a track. You'll see how it works out.
1) Overture March
After a bouncy beginning, the main theme is introduced by steady strings. The development on this track is a bit strange because, after the strings, the theme is reprised with much more gusto, complete with brass and percussion and woodwind trills. I believe that it is the fault of the arrangement to move so jarringly from steady and refined to all out heroic mode. There's a developmental section in the middle where the theme finds itself in all varieties of modes and, for the most part, a minor key. A swirling interlude for descending string scales leads to a more dignified, appropriate reprise of the theme, keeping its whole joyous feel without becoming over anxious or raucous as before.
The London Philharmonic recordings, as a rule of thumb, were usually crystal clear and technically superior, although the Tokyo Metropolitan recordings had more resonance and better dynamics, lending a more dramatic feel when needed. Here, the Tokyo Met wins more marks for the brass being a bit more ballsy and for making the transition from the strings to brass, percussion, and winds performing the main theme a bit smoother as well as having an unusually clear recording quality (for these issues of the Symphonic Suites, anyway).
As I made mention of in the introduction, there is another recording of these pieces by the Tokyo Strings Ensemble. That recording represents the absolute best of this piece. The strings are crisp and carry such emotion with them that I never realized how much the other two recordings were lacking until I heard it. Also, the brass, when it needs to be, is very bold and resonant, and then, again when is appropriate, soft and supportive. Unfortunately, this recording is probably very difficult to find by now, but I consider it to be the gold standard of many of these pieces.
Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 10/10 / London Phil - 7/10 / Tokyo Met - 8/10
2) Chateau Ladutorm
Ah, here we have Sugiyama's first "castle theme". As is standard with his castle themes, this one is written in quasi-baroque style, with strings only. The piece is constantly moving; when the violin melody isn't moving, the cello line is, and everything in between. This is one of the more interesting castle themes because it presents a simple theme, which Sugiyama expands upon, develops, and eventually repeats.
I believe that the London Philharmonic wins this round. The Tokyo Metropolitan performance is considerably louder and edgy, with harsh transitions between the staccato and legato of the main melody. The London Phil plays it soft and steady, letting the music speak for itself. Again, however, the Tokyo Strings Ensemble outshines the other performances. The strings are appropriately choppy during the staccato parts, and ultra smooth during the development's legato section.
Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 10/10 / London Phil - 9/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10
Beginning with strings only, this track is simply delightful and catchy. Unfortunately, that translates here into slightly overused and predictable. Also, the arrangement at this time doesn't really do anything for me either; it's quite simplistic. Fortunately, while the track still never really 'takes off', it does improve. The next section is for flighty, racing strings playing all manners of scales and arpeggios in congruence with the original chord progressions, making a much more interesting listen. The next development is a winner for sounding just too adorable with pizzicato strings and glockenspiel. The original melody and harmonies are then repeated by winds before returning to strings to end this track.
The Tokyo Metropolitan recording has a bit too much resonance for this piece, making the strings in the fast section blur together. Also, it is played much slower by the orchestra. That said, this just isn't the kind of piece where performance makes much of a difference. The strange thing about the London Philharmonic recording is that it is, as usual, crystal clear. Usually this would be a good thing, but it reveals all the flaws and shallowness of the arrangement. This piece, however, was another whose performance by the Tokyo Strings Ensemble was flawless. It elevates this simplistic arrangement into something wondrous with strings that are, at turns choppy and edgy, at others smooth.
Scores: Enjoyment - 7/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 9/10 / London Phil - 7/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10
4) Unknown World
Sugiyama has never failed to capture the spirit of adventure with his world themes. "Unknown World" is certainly no exception and actually features one of his most attractive overworld melodies. Beginning with pizzicato strings, the melody is presented by an oboe before being taken over by the strings, featuring lush string harmonies. The theme is then presented by the cello section with more beautiful, lush strings. After a short section where brass makes an appearance, the melody is heard by a solo flute, and then by unison pizzicato and tremolo strings. I can't explain why, but that string combination is just chilling and inspired.
Again, the London Philharmonic wins this round. While the Tokyo Metropolitan's performances usually have superb dynamics, here they begin far too loudly and never quite recover. Also, the London Phil's crystalline recording is able to capture all the intricacies of this arrangement. The Tokyo Strings Ensemble performance of this piece consists of only strings, but, again, evokes so much more emotion than even the London Phil. The lush string arrangements here are the best of the three recordings.
Scores: Enjoyment - 9/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 10/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10
This seems to be a piece that everybody but me hates. It is true that Sugiyama's battle themes are definitely not his best work, but I love the ferocity in this piece and the interesting use of brass. The theme is very simple, but is presented by seemingly out-of-tune trumpets and seem to literally be wailing out the melody. There's a softer, tense interlude section for high, tremolo strings before it returns to the blaring trumpets, separated by cymbal crashes. It ends on a dissonant brass crescendo, a trick that will become standard for Sugiyama in ending his battle tracks.
After a more ferocious beginning than the London Philharmonic recording, the Tokyo Metropolitan simply cannot collect itself enough to finish the piece. It sounds like it gave all the energy into those first few blasts and remained too tame for the rest of the piece. Without the trumpets blaring like in the London Phil, the simplicity of this arrangement is really brought out. I feel like mentioning that for once the Tokyo Strings Ensemble has produced an unsatisfactory result. Here, somehow the brass is even more tame than in the Tokyo Met recording, revealing how thin the orchestration really is.
Scores: Enjoyment - 7/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 6/10 / London Phil - 9/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10
I feel that Sugiyama's dungeon themes are often hit-and-miss. This one is definitely a hit. It has a dark, dismal feel while remaining strangely beautiful. The main melody is performed by strings and consists mostly of arpeggios, separated by tense string trills. What the piece lacks in good melodic content, however, it makes up for by evoking a very uneasy mood throughout with interesting chord progressions, constantly shifting from dissonance to consonance.
The Tokyo Metropolitan is the winner here because I feel that the London Philharmonic is a bit inconsistent. The Phil's dynamics are mostly nonexistent, with the piece staying at a single, low volume for the duration, even when brass comes in for some enhancement. The Met nails this one by not only achieving better dynamics, but also by having a very smooth performance that simply glides from note to note, chord to chord. For a piece that consists of mainly strings, you would think that the Tokyo Strings Ensemble recording would be the best... and you'd be right. They capture all the uneasy nuances of this piece perfectly.
Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 10/10 / London Phil - 6/10 / Tokyo Met - 10/10
7) King Dragon
Beginning with two interesting choices of percussion including a gong, the "King Dragon" theme begins. It is interesting because it stays almost neutral with its initial horn solo, but as the piece progresses and gains intensity, with choppy string harmonies, you really get the feel that this is a ferocious creature. There are some interesting effects produced by the brass before the piece tames once more with wind solos and more brass solos carrying the theme.
The Tokyo Metropolitan recording here certainly captures the sinister feel of the theme right of the bat, but only because, once again, it starts far too loudly, leaving little room for any dynamics. The beginning should be the softest part in order to successfully build to the terrifying climax; the London Philharmonic recording captures this perfectly. Like "Fight", though, the Tokyo Strings Ensemble actually loses points because it is simply not ferocious enough. It is too steady to be threatening.
Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 7/10 / London Phil - 9/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10
This piece should almost be seen as a companion to the "Overture March". It begins with some rousing trumpet fanfares before moving into the sweet yet slightly quirky main theme played by strings and winds. There is a strong section in the middle for sweeping strings, aided by brass, and playful tambourines. The main melody is then provided by strings before the rather standard sounding climax.
Strangely, the issue I usually have with the Tokyo Metropolitan on this album that they start off too loud actually works for its favour in this piece. What should be a rousing start in the London Philharmonic is completely let down by the softness of the playing. Other than that, the pieces are nearly identical, but those first few notes are enough to make or break the entire piece. If you don't get off on the right foot, then there's no chance of recovery, in my opinion.
Strangely, since the Tokyo Strings Ensemble have excelled at most other pieces, they fall a tad short on this one. There is too little variation in dynamics. The sweeping strings are too light and have no real dramatic weight.
Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 8/10 / London Phil - 6/10 / Tokyo Met - 9/10
The arrangements on this album are, for the most part, very simplistic, and this actually detracts somewhat from the enjoyment of the pieces. There are certainly other Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites I would easily recommend over this one, but I still would recommend it, if nothing else just to see how Sugiyama has progressed. The album may not get marks for complexity, but it is still above average.
The reason I opted to compare recordings is because, with so many different recordings of these pieces out there, which one should you choose? For this particular Symphonic Suite, the answer is much harder to reach than on subsequent ones. Each has its share of pros and cons, but I think I would have to recommend the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra recording over the London Philharmonic Orchestra. However, neither recording is particularly distinguished so, if you are lucky enough to find the recording with the Tokyo Strings Ensemble, I'd suggest you purchase it immediately. It contains the most flawless performances of most of these pieces, although the absence of woodwinds in that album also ensures that it isn't as varied as the other recordings.
One thing to consider when purchasing the suites are the bonuses that come with the orchestral recording. The Tokyo Strings Ensemble recording also features a remastered original version of the music and an original sound story featuring music in conjunction with sound effects. The London Philharmonic recording features the Super Nintendo original version, which is obviously of better sound quality, though the remastered set is presented with the Dragon Quest II Symphonic Suite so there is no original sound version. As a bonus with the Tokyo Met, you get a plethora of nifty, orchestrated jingles. They're nothing special, but they help to fill out the album and a few of them feature some piano work by Sugiyama, which is so rarely heard. This is the main reason the recording is slightly better value than the London Philharmonic original print.
Overall: Enjoyment - 7/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 9/10 / London Phil - 7/10 / Tokyo Met - 8/10