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Dragon Quest Brass Quintet :: Review by Juan2Darien

Dragon Quest Brass Quintet Album Title: Dragon Quest Brass Quintet
Record Label: Aniplex
Catalog No.: SVWC-7338
Release Date: February 22, 2006
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


I went through a phase for a few years, after my initial Final Fantasy craze, where I wanted nothing but Dragon Quest music. I loved how seamlessly the series' composer Koichi Sugiyama was able to move from one style, genre, mood, etc., to the next. After the latest Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite was released, I longed for more. Luckily, a few new arranged albums have been released. There was one album featuring arrangements for string quartet and two for brass quintet. This is a review for the first of those brass quintet albums. One of the reasons I loved Sugiyama's music was because of what a superb orchestrator he was. Were his orchestrations groundbreaking? No, but they were vibrant and colourful. Therefore, I was a bit skeptical when it came to these arranged albums because I didn't think that such a small group of performers and such a limited palette could do his music justice. I think that the brass quintet albums fare a bit better than the string quartet CD, but that's not something I'm going to get into. Regardless, the first Dragon Quest Brass Quintet CD is fun, nostalgic, and lovely at times, but those moments are separated by some truly ghastly ones.


Beginning with the famous "Overture March", the album gets off on the right start. The original was already a piece for primarily brass, achieving that regal tone that you might associate with an overture. The original melody is very playful, but the way the arrangers twists it throughout the piece sends it through all sorts of different statements here. It can be cheery, despairing, or even somewhere down the middle, achieving a neutral sound. The best thing about this album is the selection. Even if the original piece was not written for exclusively brass, the arrangers ensure that it sounds like it could or should have been, although this does not necessarily make them good by themselves. What we receive are four Castle themes in a row. For these pieces, Sugiyama almost always shifts into Baroque gear. Beginning with Dragon Quest III's "Rondo", the album continues its streak of playful pieces. Despite the fact that there are only five performers, this is one of the most 'full' sounding tracks on the album. The melody juxtaposes phrases of legato with staccato and minor with major, resulting in a well-rounded piece.

"Castle Trumpeter", despite sounding like it may one of the triumphs of this album, is actually one of the more disappointing ones. It is not the fault of the performance or even the arrangement, to an extent. The problem is that the original orchestrations were very contrasting with the dignified trumpet solo and the smooth strings, and here, the piece loses that original contrast that made it so musically interesting as well as the lush tones originally exhibited by strings. The style of this piece is also very similar to that of "Rondo" and to an extent "Overture March", making it seem somewhat like a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, the monotony shall not break, for a bit anyway. Dragon Quest VII's "Echo of Horns Throughout the Castle" fixes the problem I had with "Castle Trumpeter" in that it actually sounds very nice with just brass, ending up sounding more heroic and ballsy than the original. But still, Sugiyama's castle themes are a bit too similar and grouping them together was a mistake. Despite my gripes with the grouping of these pieces together, "Majestic Castle ~ Gavotte de Ch�teau" does not echo that original disappointment since it is the best of the castle themes. The brass here doesn't seem to simply play the music but rather frolics with it. What results is a Castle theme based less on technique than emotion, making it a vast improvement over the previous three tracks.

Moving from the castle themes, "Unknown World" is somewhat of a hit-and-miss kind of track for me. The melody is very nice and smooth, but the accompaniment is just a bit too bouncy and as a result, everything seems a bit too separate. It does not create a coherent whole, with one group being overly perky and the other being smooth and serious. The next piece, "Adventure", is much better. The beginning had me a bit worried, because without the strings of the original, I did not think it could generate the same emotional impact. Fortunately, once the piece gets going, the problem is corrected. Even without the percussion from the original orchestrations, this piece still retains its militaristic feel. Towards the end, there's a strange interlude that is a bit more Classical sounding than the previous material; it worked with the original, but somehow it just sounds awkward with just brass.

Now we're onto the town themes, some of Sugiyama's most colourful and downright fun creations. "In a Town ~ Casino" gets things started nicely, presenting the simplistic light-hearted tune with bouncy accompaniment. Then comes the "Casino" part of the track and it just steals the whole show; it's wonderful, bluesy, and pure Americana with swinging trumpet and trombone solos. The only issue with this track is that, like a few other tracks mentioned, the original featured some absolutely lush strings that the brass can simply not emulate. "In the Town ~ Happy Humming ~ Inviting Village ~ Folk Dance" was one of my favorite town medleys by Sugiyama because, except for the "Inviting Village" section (a title which I always found a bit inappropriate as most of that melody leaves me feeling a bit cold), it features the same melody in different guises. The miracle was that, in each of the three statements of the theme, it was nearly unrecognizable because of differences in rhythm, key, time signature, and, of course, orchestrations. Here, the similarities between the different sections are brought out, making the theme feel very worn out by the end of the piece. It's still a lovely melody, and it even gets "Big Band" and waltz treatments before the end of the piece, but with such a lack of instrumental colour, it grows old very quickly.

"Requiem" is an interesting piece because the orchestrations featured strings only. The shift to brass only is actually better than I would have originally anticipated. Next, I always felt that the music from Dragon Quest VIII featured some of Sugiyama's most lackluster compositions. It felt like he was too comfortable creating merely suitable compositions, rather than branching out and experimenting a bit with timbres. I feel rather hot-and-cold with "Healing Power of the Psalms ~ Friar's Determination". The first part sounds like the beginning of a grand journey, but it never really reaches that expectation. Instead, after a rather triumphant yet simple melody, it shifts into more minor-key "castle music" sounding territory, making it rather disappointing (we have enough castle music on this CD!). The original, triumphant melody from the beginning is reprised before the end of the piece, but it still does not save the track from sounding unoriginal.

Luckily, a miracle is given to us in the form of "Comrades". It is a medley and the original pieces were outstanding to begin with. While this version still does not compare with the fully orchestrated version, it is still a superb and interesting track. After a funny little beginning with muted brass, the piece moves into a more steady yet equally playful section, featuring some low, low tuba solos that make this section a bit awkward sounding but in the best of ways. The next sections are where the real adventure starts, featuring two of the better of Sugiyama's experimental pieces. If I'm correct, this part was originally some of the 'gypsy' music composed for Dragon Quest IV. I'm not sure what it sounds like: Arabian or Spanish. Either way it's enthralling. The best part is when the trumpet comes in for an extended solo, letting silence truly reign between phrases. The next piece is considerably slower, featuring a very folksy yet rather downbeat melody. Then the beginning section with muted brass is reprised, being a suitable way to end this taxing journey of a piece (you'll feel like you've been around the world after listening to it!).

Ending themes always end up being some of Sugiyama's best music, and, unlike, say, castle themes, ending themes are not defined by a particular style and are therefore much more varied. What we have now are four consecutive ending themes, starting with Dragon Quest II's "My Road My Journey". Unfortunately, this particular theme does not translate too well into a brass quintet arrangement. The thing that made the orchestrated version of this piece so noteworthy for me was, in addition to a lovely, hopeful melody, the lush strings. The brass quintet here just cannot conjure the same instrumental colour that a full orchestra can; they, obviously, excel in the parts of this piece originally dominated by brass, but other than that, this version pales in comparison to others. Even the climax of the track, which usually sends chills up my spine, did little in the way of emotional impact. "Into the Legend" was a piece originally dominated by brass, making the transition here much smoother. The same heroic feel of the original piece is maintained here. The original "Bridal Waltz" thrived on colourful orchestrations, making me already a bit skeptical of this arrangement. Having said that, the piece fares rather well with this limited instrumental range, keeping the overall feel of the original, even the more lush and romantic parts. The beauty of the piece is that, despite all these different guises it takes, it still seems so familiar.

"Sky, Ocean, and Earth" returns us to the issue that a brass quintet just cannot conjure the kind of colour required for these pieces. The beginning section does surprisingly well, considering that the brass is playing what was originally a part written for harp. The harmony for this first part is provided by a pulsing trumpet figure that, truthfully, just sounds ridiculous. The subsequent playful movement does a little better because it takes on a jazzy edge that, as proved by "Casino", these players thrive on. The piece transitions into a new movement that is much faster with fanfares separating the statements of the main melody. Another issue with this is that the original contained one of Sugiyama's least memorable melodies, so to add that detail with the fact that here the piece can't even count on interesting orchestrations make it a lackluster effort. The finale of the piece is actually the best part of it, containing a sinister final chord punctuated by blasts from the trumpet. The final piece is the "Overture" from Dragon Quest V. The only thing that differentiates it from the first "Overture March" we were treated to is the beginning is that it consists of a regal fanfare for trumpets, rather than the playful horns that opened the other track. All in all, the final track is a waste — a reprise of a theme that we've already received the ultimate statement of.


This is a very mixed effort for me. Some pieces are truly outstanding, such as "Comrades" and "Bridal Waltz", but there are some lackluster ones. What it mainly comes down to is that, for a brass quintet album, these are very interesting arrangements and this is a good album. Unfortunately, compared to the originals and the orchestrated versions, the brass quintet does not provide enough instrumental colour for many of these pieces that were made so great by lush and inventive orchestrations. By limiting the music to a mere five instrumentals, you are betraying the true beauty of the pieces. If they contained maybe even a few more instruments, even some percussion would elevate these pieces to the next level, the results may have been much better.

Overall Score: 6/10