Dragon Quest IV Symphonic Suite is in many ways the pinnacle of the series, from its captivating character themes to its rousing classical highlights to its almost perfect pacing. The only question then becomes which of its numerous orchestral versions to acquire. This earliest recording by the NHK Symphony Orchestra doesn't boast as robust a sound as the newer London Philharmonic symphonic suite (which is reviewed separately with a complete description of the score itself). Nevertheless the NHK version has some magical moments of its own that make it a very respectable take on a fantastic score.
As in Dragon Quest III, the performances by the NHK Symphony on strings and woodwinds are excellent, enough so that its rendition of the sorrowful "Elegy ~ Mysterious Shrine" sounds at times even more beautiful than the others. Thanks to distinctive lead instrumentation and a delicate performance, "Balloon's Flight" is also at its best as the arrangement cycles sublimely through the different woodwinds of the orchestra. There's something about the NHK recording in these quieter pieces that makes it sound like the orchestra is right in front of the listener, the strings less distant than in their London Philharmonic counterparts (even though overall the latter boasts the more pristine sound quality of the two).
Also as in Dragon Quest III, the brass in the NHK version is not at the level of the others, though it's not as significant a problem in the more evenly balanced score to Dragon Quest IV. "Battle for the Glory" suffers the most, as the weaker brass combined with a brisker tempo diminish the threatening quality of the piece somewhat. (The faster tempo is pervasive to most of the soundtrack, but only those making direct comparison to the other symphonic versions are likely to notice.) Both "In a Town" and "Homeland ~ Wagon Wheel's March" have a quaint sound in the NHK's performance of their early moments, and while the brass in their sweeping second halves lacks the presence of the London Philharmonic, the climactic strings of the NHK Symphony give those versions their own very special quality.
It's hard to discuss Dragon Quest IV without mentioning "Comrades". The classic character medley is for many the track that epitomizes the score, and it's also the one that differs most among symphonic suite renditions. The middle portion of this NHK version gives stronger focus to the lead instrumentation but is a tad rough around the edges, while the gypsy segment near the end is uptempo almost to the point of resembling modern dance music. It's an interesting rendition and the themes are delightful as always, but I prefer the more elegant performance and exotic quality of the other symphonic versions of the medley.
Overall I would recommend the London Philharmonic version over the NHK Symphony recording of Dragon Quest IV Symphonic Suite, but the advantage isn't one-sided and the differences are often negligible. Those who find themselves in possession of the NHK suite are far more likely to spend their time marveling at Sugiyama's tremendous work than wondering about the alternatives that are out there.