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Final Fantasy IX Piano Collections :: Review by Chris

Final Fantasy IX Piano Collections Album Title: Final Fantasy IX Piano Collections
Record Label: DigiCube (1st Edition); Square Enix (Reprint)
Catalog No.: SSCX-10048; SQEX-10027
Release Date: January 24, 2001; July 22, 2004
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


The Piano Collections are an inconsistent bunch: IV and V's are characterised by simplistic and often dreary arrangements that did little but add basic harmonies to the original tunes; X and X-2's were immensely creative and musical refined but notoriously inaccessible both for listening and performance; and VI and VIII's were a hotchpotch that featured elements of other additions to the series but in an inconsistent mix. The Final Fantasy IX Piano Collections, on the other hand, will always be known as the Final Fantasy piano album that reconciled musical refinement with fan's basic needs the best. Arranged by Shiro Hamaguchi and performed by Louis Leerink, the pair emphasises the beauty or power of a well-selected array of Nobuo Uematsu's originals while occasionally delving into the areas of jazz, impressionism, ragtime, and neo-renaissance music. Diverse, enchanting, pianistic, accessible, and melodic, are these really the Piano Collections that everybody will like?


The majority of the Final Fantasy IX Piano Collections comprises of straightforward and pleasant renditions of familiar and emotive pieces. Renditions of the town themes "Hermit's Library - Daguerreo," "Frontier Village Dali," and "Where Love Doesn't Reach" are at the heart of the album. Intrinsically beautiful, arranged unremarkably but effectively so that they sound natural and enchanting on the piano, Nobuo Uematsu's melodies are the key to their success, heightened in elegancy thanks to Leerink's performance and the grace and tone that the piano offers. Their harmonisation is pretty one-dimensional, based around predictable progressions of diatonic chords or repetition of a subtle basso ostinati, though fortunately neither unpianistic nor transparent. Hamaguchi adds just enough variance through occasional flourishes, jazzy melodic elaborations, and changes in harmonic shape for each theme to sustain near-relentless focus on their melodies, though some themes are more harmonically elaborate than others. "Rose of May" and "Endless Sorrow," for instance, beautifully intensify in their secondary sections thanks to some reharmonisations through careful placement of chromatic chords. Some themes are much simpler than their originals, however. "Melodies of Life" is almost exclusively based on the melody; accompanied by just a flowing series of arpeggios, its near-absolute focus emphasise the theme's innocence, purity, and organic nature most effectively. There are casualties, however. "Sleepless City Treno" fails through its lack of harmonic substance, barely different from its original and drearily slow. Its arrangement has no constructive purpose on the album.

The brain of the album is represented by two examples of competent stylistic experimentation. "Bran Bal, The Soulless Village" works effortlessly in a Gymnopédie format. Beautifully understated throughout, supported by a fluid melody and some innovative chromatic harmonies, Hamaguchi directly references the eccentric French impressionist Erik Satie, while rigorously reworking the original's harmonies and making numerous inspired refinements. The transition to the form was an inspired decision and is expertly implemented, but not at the lost of the original's otherworldly, deathly, and beautiful aura. Even more unusual is the elegant treatment of "The Place I'll Return to Someday" as a neo-renaissance and jazz fusion. Yes, two completely dissimilar styles are effortlessly united through the original's modal melody, thanks to Hamaguchi's skilful employment of harmony and ability to fuse intricate polyphony with homophonic textures. It is these two arrangements that are the heart of the album's musical integrity. They affirmatively demonstrate that the Piano Collections are not simply about one-dimensional undaring adherences to banal and simplistic 'melody with accompaniment' formats. They are musical, pianistic, and technically competent, albeit remarkable merely as homages and fusions, rather than anything unprecedented in the wider world of music. They might not be on par with X's "Song of Prayer" and "Besaid Island" or X-2's "Paine's Theme" and "Demise," but perhaps this is fortunate, given they inspire an indifferent layman's response as opposed to a hostile one.

Arguably the peaks of the album come from the more dramatic and fast-paced tracks. "Eternal Harvest" transfers to piano extremely well; it retains the original's traditional dance feel but is made more rapid and flowing through intricate passagework and Leerink's elegant performance. "Vamo' Alla Flamenco" is arranged with similar flair, technically flawless in both performance and arrangement; it retains a Spanish flamenco feel that is elaborated upon through virtuosic runs, dramatic buildups, and sumptuous harmonies, and proves an all-round magical show piece and stand-alone feature. Also impressive is "Two Hearts That Can't be Stolen ~ Towards That Gate," which is as dramatic and unpredictable as the two full-orchestral originals, but convincing and heartrending nonetheless, featuring some excellent transitions and buildups. "You're Not Alone" also receives interesting treatment. The bulk of the arrangement revolves around the verse of the original, interpreted in a crisp, whimsical, and lyrical way with thin staccato piano passages tinged with jazz. The chorus remains as cheesy as ever, treated as a solo piano power ballad with horribly unpianistic backing chords, though does what Uematsu intended and will really 'rock' for certain fans. One either loves it or hates it, though the piece overall does a good job of staying true to the original's purpose and melodies while emphasising musicality. The peak of the album comes with "Final Battle". Opening slowly with a series of modernist chords that undergo delicious chromatic progressions, it quickly intensifies into a passionately driven rip-roaring rampage of sound that remains appealing despite its dissonant emphasis. Simpler than it sounds, Hamaguchi creates a wonderful illusion that is enhanced by Leerink's canny performance.


The Final Fantasy IX Piano Collections portrays Shiro Hamaguchi in a variety of lights: the romanticist with his melodically driven miniatures, the experimenter through his homages and fusions, the illusionist with his remarkable ability to make things simple and unremarkable sound wholesome, and the spare part with his hands-off take in "Sleepless City Treno". The album rarely attains much musical depth, given it adheres almost consistently to standard textures and functional but elaborate harmonies, but that doesn't matter. It is ultimately separated from other additions to the series thanks to its ability to reconcile. Hamaguchi's conservative, melodic, and occasionally flashy arranging is also musically sound and occasionally conceptually profound. This means that it provides exactly what the fans wanted while being tolerable for more mature musicians. Hamaguchi and Leerink did well here and shine with a certain light almost consistently throughout the disc. Few who enjoyed the Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack ought give this a miss and all those who have enjoyed Piano Collections for games earlier in the series should certainly enjoy this one.

Overall Score: 8/10