Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale :: Review by Juan2Darien
Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale was the third game music album I ever owned (with Final Fantasy IV Celtic Moon and Final Fantasy VIII Piano Collections coming before it), but I still regard it as one of my most worthwhile purchases. Since this album, Shiro Hamaguchi has become the principal orchestrator for the Final Fantasy series, creating vibrant orchestral albums that satiate both the music fans looking for something new and the Final Fantasy fans looking for some good, old-fashioned nostalgia. I mention this because this album is relatively experimental, yet completely successful, trying some risky arrangements, but still capturing the essences of the originals. I would assume that such experimentation makes this a rather divisive album, with some bound to hate it, and others, like me, bound to love it.
What could possibly be a better way to start than with one of Final Fantasy VI's most beloved melodies? "Opening ~ Tina" begins very ominously with strings and bells before building into its first climax with powerful brass and immense gong crashes. The next section is mysterious and beautiful with interesting harmonies, and next, after a dramatic pause, comes the real 'meat' of this piece: "Tina's Theme", and it has never sounded so good! The arrangement features militaristic percussion and rhythm, with strings providing the harmony along with brass choirs as a lovely recorder takes the melody. The choice of recorder to carry the melody was an ingenious one. The next section is increasingly tension filled, almost sounding like a variation on "The Mystic Forest" with winds and harp playing the same basic chord progression. After another section for lush strings, we're back on the journey with a reprisal of "Tina's Theme" with some clever modulations before the ending. Despite the theme being heroic and determined, it ends rather mysteriously and almost indecisively.
Now we get another great track with "Kefka" (also "Cefca"). A rather bombastic beginning with timpani and a very complex section for piano brings us to the main melody. It does not sound quite like the original, but expands upon the clown-like aspect of the character in a way that is deliciously evil and every bit as good as the original. The melody is carried by wind solos, then trumpet solos, with some interesting colour provided by winds, pizzicato strings, and some interesting percussion choices. Then the climax comes in, proud and bombastic as ever. The piece repeats, building up the intensity and insanity each time. A short interlude for strings and snare drums, which fits in quite nicely with the rest of the piece, brings the piece to another new section with swirling figures for winds underneath some aggressive brass. The main melody repeats again, and by the time it reaches the climax, it has gotten considerably, although almost certainly intentionally, clumsy sounding, and the brass ends on a vicious, blaring climax.
"The Mystic Forest" gets some interesting additions too, turning the piece into an operatic masterpiece. The beginning section here for low, suspended strings and bassoon solos lead the piece into a wandering section for strings, wind duets, and eventually an oboe solo. Some sinister brass gets the piece back on track, and when the original harmonies are heard, suddenly the track is very recognizable. The melody is originally presented by a duet between flute and a high soprano voice, adding to the overall operatic feel of this arrangement, and then by a clarinet. The beautiful major key development of the melody from the original is lost here, but with the melody being compensated by an overall uplifting atmosphere. Then the main melody is presented nearly verbatim as from before, and the piece ends with some creepy high strings and piano. After that downer (however good the music was), "Gau" comes to save the day. The theme is given a Baroque treatment here with string ensemble and harpsichord continuo. The melody is first heard by a solo cello before the entire violin section takes over, and the pace quickens, making the melody sound more light-hearted than the original soulful cello. Then something interesting happens: a new interlude is presented, sounding lifted directly from something from the Baroque era. Then the piece is heard, in all of its hopeful glory, by the violins once more before slowing down only to build into the beautiful climax with a lushly romantic violin solo.
"Milan de Chocobo" seems to be a piece that everybody hates... everybody but me, it seems. Yes, it is a huge departure from the original, obnoxious Chocobo melody, but isn't that what we want, something new? The entire piece seems a bit off-kilter with some clever orchestration choices and loads of creative dissonance. I absolutely love how this previously annoying melody was transformed into something classy, if also a bit... drunk sounding. The dissonance only helps to build tension until the final glorious moments where consonance and dissonance meet in one heavenly climax. "Troops March On" is a piece that both stays very faithful to the original and also deviates greatly, with each of its two disparate sections. The beginning is courageous with booming percussion and brass playing a very militaristic melody. The melody starts to die down until the piece is over. Now, onto "Kids Run Through the City Corner"... but wait! What the hell? After an overly long pause, "Troops March On" starts up again with some new material that I don't believe is even from Final Fantasy VI (if it is, I sure don't recognize it). Regardless of whether it's new or not or if it flows with the rest of the piece (which is most certainly does not), this next section is still a great addition to the album. The piece is lively and anxious, and a short section for tremolo strings and violin solos bring the piece to a somewhat confused section, constantly trying to find its way before finally reaching perhaps the loudest climax on this album.
"Kids Run Through the City Corner" suffers the same kind of disparity that "Troops March On" did, although it is much less jarring. The beginning features a less than pleasant violin and harpsichord duet, but when the main melody comes in a minute into the piece with the same baroque orchestration as "Gau", the result is heavenly. I consider this to be one of Uematsu's most endearing melodies, and this arrangement, save for the first minute, does the melody the justice it deserves. "Blackjack" is a wonderful piece full of the same creativity that I've now come to expect from this album. The beginning features swirling figures for winds and brass. The melody is first presented by strings then, in one of the most inspired instrumental choices since the recorder in "Tina's Theme", a saxophone. The rest of the piece is adventurous with lively brass and clever, unexpected modulations, while still keeping the same feel throughout. "Blackjack", if memory holds, is Final Fantasy VI's "airship theme", which fits because this piece is truly soaring.
"Relm" is another track that seems to be a love / hate sort of track (with the majority hating it). I will admit that the harpsichord is a bit abrasive in the context of the otherwise lush orchestrations with strings and oboe solos. Contrary to general belief, the instrument in this piece is not a bagpipe, but rather Uillean Pipes. For one, there's no droning, and two, I've attempted the bagpipes and thought it would be fun to try to play "Relm", and the somewhat limited range of the bagpipe does not afford this particular melody, I'm afraid. While I don't have a problem with the Uillean Pipes in general, I think the performance of them in this piece is less than stellar and almost superficial, bogging down another otherwise superb Uematsu creation. Luckily, there's one of those experimental sections in this piece where the arrangers really explore the spirit of this piece with lush strings and winds. Then it's back to the main melody, pipes and all, and the piece ends very soothingly with strings and harp.
Are you ready for this, the best piece on the album and a legendary arrangement (or at least it should be)? None of the previous experiments on this album can prepare you for this. Probably one of the biggest risks on this album was the complete transformation of "Mystery Train", and it pays off like no other arrangement on this album does. The original featured a steady rhythm and consisted of mainly brass with a short section for strings and winds. With this arrangement, the piece has been stripped down to a violin and piano duet. The violin here takes the melody, playing it with a kind of ferocity that makes me think that perhaps the train is now on a runaway crash-course. There are some new creative additions to the melody that will pay off soon enough. The piano is absolutely frantic, playing a serious of broken, dissonant chord progression and shifting from one rhythm to the next effortlessly. Then comes the climax, but the piece is only half done. The next section, after a considerable pause, expands on the new melodic addition I made mention of. This time, the violin carries a mournful tone, and the piano is somber, and suddenly the piece has been transformed into somewhat of a refined waltz. There is a wandering section before the piece transforms into a disheartening yet romantic final statement of the original melody in the violin's highest register. Rarely is the devotion of a single performer this apparent, and rarely does music have this kind of emotional impact.
With a piece as absolutely perfect as the arrangement of "Mystery Train", you'd think that any piece after would be completely eclipsed by its glory. Well, this is not entirely true. "Aria di Mezzo Carattere" is an operatic statement of "Celes' Theme", complete with a soprano (the same, I believe, that gave an air of mystery to "The Mystic Forest") showcasing her talents. While nothing can beat the sheer flawlessness of "Mystery Train", this piece comes very close. This arrangement, as many before it, takes many creative liberties, including an entirely new ascending opening section leading to the melody and a middle section. Despite the fact that "Celes' Theme" is a classic, I find the newly composed middle section of this piece to be the best. It features a heartbreakingly romantic melody that builds and seamlessly segues back into the original melody. The soprano, Svetla Krasteva, has a bit much vibrato, bordering on a warble (but the other arrangements I've heard of this piece feature sopranos with not nearly the same power as Krastevlavoice), but I wouldn't have it any other way. The instrumentation is simple with strings and harpsichord letting the soprano truly shine. This is still a very satisfying way to end an extraordinary musical experience.
Any serious Final Fantasy or even music fan out there should own this remarkable musical journey. There's so much to appreciate here, even without knowing the original pieces (it was years after I bought this album that I checked out the original soundtrack, and that only added to my enjoyment of it), from the creative arrangements to the wondrous melodies to several particularly notable performances. Notice I only said "several" of the performances. If there is only one damper on this album, it is that some of the performances have some severe flaws, most of them being out-of-tune strings. Also, the recording is not as crystal-clear as music of this caliber requires, but what it lacks in precision, it makes up for in atmosphere and resonance. Each track is superb, although there are a few dignified masterpieces among the selections, namely "Mystery Train", and there is no reason why any music fan should not own this album.
Overall Score: 10/10