Shining out among a recent string of mediocre Final Fantasy piano albums is a bright spot in Masashi Hamauzu's Final Fantasy XIII Piano Collections. Arranging his own compositions from the original soundtrack, Hamauzu offers a piano collection with far more artistry and emotion than the pleasant but forgettable ones for FFVII and FFXI, and worlds beyond the lead-handed adaptations in the recent "Piano Operas". Some arrangements even far supersede Hamauzu's original work, making this the only Final Fantasy to date where the Piano Collections is the best way to experience the soundtrack.
The switch from the diverse array of acoustic and electronic instrumentation in the OST to a single piano in Final Fantasy XIII Piano Collections actually works to the album's favor by remedying some previously questionable instrumental choices. Take for example the arrangement of "The Sunleth Waterscape". Both the shallow, syrupy lyrics and tediously simple pop beat of the original are gone; what remains are the pleasant main melody and an equally pleasant piano performance. I wouldn't have expected the pseudo-vocals of "The Gapra Whitewood" to make fodder for a piano arrangement, but not only does Hamauzu relay them elegantly in piano form, he structures a gentler, more contemplative, almost entirely new piece around them. "Nautilus" he transforms in a similar manner - though the quiet, introspective passage midway through the track was also present in the orchestral original, it gains an indelible, Yoko Kanno-like grace in the piano version. And the spartan piano finale to "Prelude to Final Fantasy XIII" closes the piano collection as aptly as the original sci-fi synth rendition opened the OST.
Conversely the more robust orchestral pieces of the original soundtrack don't fare so well here. The piano arrangements for "March of the Dreadnaughts", "Nascent Requiem" and "Fang's Theme" try to match the orchestra originals' energy in loudness and tempo but feel overbearing, while the quieter moments come off a bit flat. Certain moments, like the dramatic melodic rising and falling in "Fang's Theme", do work well in piano form, but for these three tracks the orchestral originals remain the definitive versions.
Occasionally in Final Fantasy piano collections you come to appreciate a new gem of a theme, one that was forgettable in its OST but for some reason strikes a chord in its piano arrangement. In Final Fantasy XIII that theme is "Reminiscence - Sulyya Springs Motif". I didn't even remember the Sulyya Springs theme from the OST (in hindsight probably because of the poorly conceived vocals), but the gentle four-note motif and tranquil arrangement in Piano Collections has had me enamored from the very first listen. A touch romantic and very relaxing, it's easily one of the highlights of the entire FFXIII music collection.
I'd be remiss not to mention one minor issue with the album's recording, a soft hiss that occasionally accompanies louder moments. It could be a mastering issue or it could simply be the sound of the pedal moving during the performance. It's a minor issue in either case and not exclusive to this album; many listeners likely won't notice or won't care and it certainly hasn't prevented me from appreciating the lovely music present.
There aren't a whole lot of VGM piano albums I would wholeheartedly recommend, but Final Fantasy XIII Piano Collections is one of theme. It's a mostly relaxing affair and could be considered slow in places, but more often than not Hamauzu puts the piano to its best use, his arrangements feeling far more meaningful than their original versions on the OST. For those curious but skeptical of FFXIII's music, and even those oblivious to the game but simply wanting some nice piano music, it's well worth listening.