Dragon Quest soundtracks sometimes pose a dilemma, whether to obtain their full symphonic suites or just experience the best parts of each via the excellent compilations available. For the series' fourth installment, however, no such dilemma exists. Boasting one astounding orchestral feat after another, Dragon Quest IV Symphonic Suite absolutely deserves to be enjoyed in its entirety.
Dragon Quest has always had its share of rousing battle themes, tranquil overworld pieces and grandiose ending themes, but Dragon Quest IV's signature work "Comrades" adds something that had previously been in short supply - character. A perfectly paced medley of character themes ranging from eccentric to solitary to exotic (the gypsy segments at the end are enchanting), it has the charisma you'd expect of classic Final Fantasy, but with composer Koichi Sugiyama's elegant orchestral touch.
Amazingly, following Comrades are two more medleys of equally high caliber. "In a Town" begins true to its name, with a carefree "roaming the town" melody that later transitions to a New Orleans jazz bit much saucier than you would expect of a Dragon Quest score. This alone would make for a complete piece and one of the series' better town themes, but an arrangement of regal trumpets with magnificent, sweeping strings at its climax elevates it to an even higher level, as much resembling Joe Hisaishi's magical Studio Ghibli works as it does traditional Dragon Quest. Sugiyama's skill with an orchestra is in full effect here - the themes themselves are certainly nice, but it's the expressive orchestrations and classical flourishes that make the piece truly special. The same can be said for "Homeland ~ Wagon Wheel's March" - though its themes are memorable even in their original game synth state, Sugiyama's delightfully drastic shifts between calm orchestral ebbs and crashing crescendos are what give the symphonic suite arrangement its magic.
Dragon Quest scores are known for their classical influences, which for some who don't follow the series seems to be a source of reluctance. For earlier Dragon Quest scores I can understand the sentiment, but not in Dragon Quest IV. "Elegy ~ Mysterious Shrine" is both sublimely classical and deeply emotional, qualities that are mutually exclusive in some Dragon Quest scores but come together perfectly here. Dragon Quest string pieces can sometimes be a bit boring, but "Unknown Castle" is so exquisite it's hard not to be impressed, and even the melodically understated "Balloon's Flight" is worth a listen every time, if only to hear Sugiyama expertly manipulate the various parts of the orchestra.
The remaining themes fit quite nicely into roles established by previous entries in the series, even if they sound a bit normal in comparison to the rest of the score. "Frightening Dungeons ~ Cursed Towers" holds more interest than earlier dungeon themes thanks to a more charismatic melody, and though "Ending" is more calm and reflective than Dragon Quest III's rousing "Into the Legend", it provides almost as satisfying a conclusion. Really the only potential weak links are the melodramatic "Sea Breeze" and the lone battle theme "Battle for Glory", which though bold and threatening in its first half is too plodding in its second.
As with most Dragon Quest scores, multiple symphonic suite recordings of Dragon Quest IV exist, and as with many of them, the version by the London Philharmonic Orchestra comes most highly recommended (though I've yet to hear the double-disc live album by the Kanagawa Philharmonic.) Similarly to Dragon Quest III, the brass of the London Philharmonic is impeccable - "Battle for Glory" leads far more energetically than the NHK Symphony's version and finishes with more strength and menace, while at the peak of "Wagon Wheel's March" the orchestra truly bellows. At times the strings can sound a bit distant compared to the NHK's, but for the majority of the album it's hard to find fault in the London Philharmonic's performance (or in the recording, which is more pristine than both the older NHK recording and the compressed-sounding Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra one).
Every Dragon Quest soundtrack has at least a few great themes to offer, but Dragon Quest IV is the most consistently excellent of them all. The slow spells that plague other Dragon Quest scores are virtually nonexistent, and the town, exploration and character medleys are at the very pinnacle of the series. Every fan of orchestral soundtracks needs some Dragon Quest, and Dragon Quest IV Symphonic Suite is the best of them all.