As highly regarded as Studio Ghibli's animated works are, even more consistent in quality than the films themselves are their musical scores. Studio Ghibli Symphonic Collection offers a must-hear compendium of orchestral themes from the studio's recent body of work.
The collection unsurprisingly starts off with Mononoke Hime, one of Studio's Ghibli's biggest hits. "Tale of Ashitaka" made its mark as one of the greatest main themes to an adventure movie in its time when the movie was first released, only to be improved upon in the Mononoke Hime Symphony Suite version. The version here is identical to the latter, but it remains moving to this day. It's melodramatic, yes, but it's melodrama at its best. The other two Mononoke Hime tracks don't boast the emotional potency of Ashitaka's theme or some other cues from the original soundtrack, but they are undeniably pretty at the least.
What is surprising about Symphonic Collection is that the Mononoke Hime tracks aren't necessarily the highlight of the CD. There are numerous other tracks that while lacking the epic sound of "Tale of Ashitaka" are nonetheless endearing. "Pastoral" is beautifully tranquil - true to its namesake - while also carrying an unexpected emotional potency thanks to the gorgeous horn solo that comes at the beginning and intermittently resurfaces throughout the piece. "Always with Me", the main theme for Spirited Away, was a smash hit in Japan in its vocal version. The orchestral version here fares no worse, letting various members of the orchestral ensemble interact with the pretty melody playfully and affectionately. "Theme from My Neighbor Yamada" takes almost a complete 180 from the rest of the album with an easy-going, carefree sound apt for a marching band.
As a group, though, it's arrangements from Howl's Moving Castle that steal the spotlight. "Moving Castle" starts with a tantalizing hint of mystery that builds steadily until the onset of a main theme that has all the wonder you would expect of a piece accompanying a magical moving castle. "War War War" foregoes the action and intensity you would hear in a Hollywood blockbuster for a dignified and triumphant march, refreshing in its lack of pretension.
The most unexpected surprise of the soundtrack is the classical sound that occasionally emerges, which aside from a few series like Dragon Quest is somewhat of a rarity in game and anime soundtracks. The combination of contemporary melodies and orchestration with classical sensibilities gives the compositions here a sort of classic Hollywood soundtrack feel. In the game soundtrack world it reminds me most of the Orchestral Game Concert series, a compliment of the highest order.
One complaint some might have is that the arrangements here go pretty much by the book, without taking many risks. However the book they follow is a good one - traditional but effective. With such a quality orchestral performance and such enjoyable melodies there's little need for gimmickery or experimentation. In fact such tactics would probably detract from the classic feel that makes the album so great.
What Studio Ghibli Symphonic Collection lacks in intensity and high drama it more than makes up for with beauty and grace. Unjaded orchestral fans who haven't experienced the recent Ghibli scores featured here really owe it to themselves to check the CD out. It makes no claims to be daring or edgy, but as a throwback to classic, melodic musical scores of old it succeeds delightfully.