Final Fantasy XIII Piano Collections :: Review by Chris
Following the success of the Final Fantasy XIII score, it was almost inevitable that Masashi Hamauzu would return for the Final Fantasy XIII Piano Collections. Earlier this year, he produced ten arrangements for the album and recorded them with pianist Aki Kuroda in Milan. The artist had already demonstrated that he is the most artistic and ambitious piano arranger in game music with the exceptional Final Fantasy X Piano Collections. Instead of trying to parallel this success, however, Hamauzu took a much more straightforward and fundamental approach. The result is somewhat uninspiring, yet usually entirely fitting...
Hamauzu's approach to the Final Fantasy XIII Piano Collections differs considerably from the Final Fantasy X Piano Collections. There are few jaw-dropping transformations and classically-esteemed recitals here; instead listeners are offered a series of thoughtful impressionist sketches. In many ways, Hamauzu's arrangements adhere closer to the stereotype of game music piano arrangements with their unyielding melodic focus and relatively simple elaborations. For example, the opening arrangement of "Lightning's Theme" opens with a contemplative rendition of the original melody against simple arpeggios, before transitioning into more motivating passages with chordal and jazz-based accompaniments. This arrangement, and others like it, seem fitting given the unpretentious nature of the original score. The approach also ensures the scores are accessible to a wider range of listeners and players, though it will also be disappointing for those expecting something ground-breaking.
Despite the straightforward approach, Hamauzu nevertheless enjoys his arrangements are more elegant and emotional than the sheer majority of piano arrangements out there. "Reminiscence" is an excellent example of how Hamauzu builds upon a simple motif in this case from Sulyya Springs' theme to take listeners on an extensive journey. Thanks to Hamauzu and Kuroda's understanding of listeners' emotions, the arrangement inspires contemplation and nostalgia throughout its duration. "The Promise" meanwhile is a beautiful rendition of the game's central emotional theme. Given the original was arguably overly simplistic, the various decorations in the arrangement and nuances in the performance are very welcome in the piano rendition. The transition to the more animated, yet thematically continuous, "The Sunleth Waterscape" ensures the arrangement maintains variety and direction. Hamauzu expands on the characters' emotions further at the centre of the album with a three-tiered medley, starting with "Vanille's Theme"; clearly inspired, he achieves a continuous feel throughout despite subtle thematic and stylistic contrasts.
That said, the sketch-based approach to the album is not compatible with always compatible with the original material from Final Fantasy XIII's score. "March of the Dreadnoughts" is the premiere example of an underwhelming transcription on the disc. The nature of the original demanded something either intricate and enigmatic like "Travel Agency" or lively and dazzling like "Attack" from Final Fantasy X Piano Collections. Instead listeners are presented with endless repetitions of the original melody with simple variations in dynamics and accompaniment each time. There are some grandiose contrasts, including a succession of runs across the keyboard at the conclusion, but these are generally unexciting and contrived. "Nautilus" is another arrangement that fails to offer the same emotional scope as its orchestral original. Hamauzu could have offered an interesting and fulfilling perspective on this theme on solo piano were he at his most inspired; clearly not, all he manages instead is a bland and rambling interpretation coloured only by scattered impressionist clichés.
Nevertheless, there are some arrangements on the album of similar creativity to those of Final Fantasy X. "The Gapra Whitewood", for example, subtly builds upon the melodic idea of the original to offer considerable tonal colour. It's especially impressive how the repetition of the melody achieves an echoing effect, capturing the resonance of the location in a Debussian way. "Fang's Theme" at last provides a showy arrangement on par with "Attack". For the first time in the album, chordal harmonies and extravagant decorations are used in an unashamed way to create richness and excitement, rather than being mere passive elaborations. The effect is certainly refreshing. Finally, "Nascent Requiem" is an impeccable realisation of the final battle theme for the game, contrasting the dissonant crisis motifs of the original with softer psychological explorations. This arrangement also exceptionally demonstrates Aki Kuroda's technical mastery and emotional understanding.
The Final Fantasy XIII Piano Collections are likely to split listeners. Those expecting an artistic and ambitious achievement like the Final Fantasy X Piano Collections will largely be disappointed by Hamauzu's mostly straightforward offerings here. Instead it appears Benyamin Nuss Plays Uematsu is the only piano album intending to break boundaries this year. Nevertheless, the approach on the Final Fantasy XIII Piano Collections feels largely suitable given the nature of the game's score and most arrangements recapture the colours and emotions of the game in a pianistic manner. The album sometimes has a tendency to labour the original melodies and lacks somewhat in scope, featuring only ten arrangements and relatively few standouts. However, it is still mostly a sophisticated piano collection that is enjoyable to both listen to and accessible to perform.
Overall Score: 7/10