"Symphonic Fantasies - Music from Square Enix" is the second orchestral game concert recording from producer Thomas Boecker, arranger Jonne Valtonen and the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne. This second album features the music of four Japanese composers for four famous Square series they scored - Yasunori Mitsuda's Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, Hiroki Kikuta's Secret of Mana, Yoko Shimomura's Kingdom Hearts, and Nobuo Uematsu's Final Fantasy - with each series' music arranged into its own 15 to 18 minute suite. It's a unique format perfect for such a project, and combined with hugely ambitious arrangements, an often virtuosic performance, and a studio-quality live recording, makes for an absolute must listen.
Following a short introductory fanfare composed specifically for the album comes the first of its four suites, dedicated to Yoko Shimomura's "Kingdom Hearts". This 15 minute work of piano and orchestra is the most delightful surprise of the album. To be clear my own affinity for Kingdom Hearts music beforehand was essentially zero - even its orchestral arrangements on the album Drammatica (performed by the very same orchestra) I felt left much to be desired. What a surprise, then, on first listen to the suite in Symphonic Fantasies to be not only entirely impressed by its artistry but on the verge of shedding a tear from the beauty of it all. Essentially everything needed to create a marvelous musical work based on Kingdom Hearts has been accomplished in this suite. Theme selection is inspired, foregoing certain quick-impact pieces that could have made easy orchestra fodder in favor of selections like "Kairi" and "The Other Promise" carrying themes of innocence and hope, with "Dearly Beloved" as the recurring motif that both binds the different segments of the suite and brings its most poignant moments. An excellent orchestral performance tangibly enhances these quiet moments and during livelier themes like "Hand in Hand" and "Twinkle Twinkle Holidays" soars, with Benyamin Nuss's piano performance adding an elaborate extra layer of expression but never at the orchestra's expense. The Kingdom Hearts series was of course originally begun as a collaboration with Disney, and though not a single Disney melody is present in the suite, it very much has that magical quality associated with decades-old works from the studio's golden age. Kingdom Hearts haters such as myself will be astonished, and as for series fans, it's hard to imagine them being anything but elated.
The masterwork of the album, however, comes in its second suite, based on Hiroki Kikuta's compositions for "Secret of Mana" (known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu 2) and its sequel Seiken Densetsu 3. If one were to frame this suite in biblical terms it would be the opening chapters of Genesis; in purely natural terms it could be cataclysm, evolution, civilization, and the conflict and triumph in humanity - all in a single 17 minute suite. The most immediately intriguing element is the opening and closing use of ambient effects - wind, raindrops, a bubbling brook, possibly even the faint sounds of otherworldly creatures about - all accomplished live by the orchestra and chorus. As a manifestation of the nature theme of the Mana series it makes for an ingenious distinguishing touch. As the orchestra and chorus move into the music proper this nature theme continues - accompanied by moments of bursting optimism, dark suspense and somber reflection - and at its peak reaches spiritual levels of beauty and grandeur. Listeners familiar with Valtonnen and co's previous effort Symphonic Shades will recall its superb choral work, and that continues here with even greater scope, as does Voltonnen's implementation of some very unique and ambitious orchestral techniques. Serving as the foundation of it all is recurring motif and series theme "Fear of Angels", which has been a long-time favorite in its beautiful Orchestral Game Concert 3 arrangement and is taken to even greater dramatic heights here. The suite was an instant favorite on first listen and over time it's only become more impressive; it's a must hear for any admirer of orchestral music.
The third suite is dedicated to Yasunori Mitsuda's compositions for "Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross", and is arranged by both Valtonnen and new Symphonic series collaborator Roger Wanamo. With Chrono Trigger in particular being such a fondly remembered RPG score this was perhaps the most anticipated work of the concert, and in many ways it meets those high expectations. The first third of the suite deftly moves between the main themes of Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross - as well as fairly disparate themes like Marle's theme and "The Trial" - in cohesive and dramatic fashion. The second third, focusing almost entirely on Chrono Cross, is surprisingly even better. Thanks in large part to some virtuoso performances from the strings section and from Rony Barrak on percussion, the slightly sappy sentimentality in some of Mitsuda's original versions is replaced with dignity and grace, and again some very high drama at its pinnacle. Only in the final third of the suite - a four-minute musical depiction of the mortal rivalry between Magus and Frog - do my feelings become conflicted. Certainly it sounds like the perfect finale and in many ways it is - "Battle with Magus" is filled with power and dread while string and woodwind turns at "Frog's Theme" are noble and rousingly triumphant. Only at its highest point does it stumble, when awkwardly timed backing percussion and strings briefly throw the final rendition of "Frog's Theme" off balance at its climax. The suite regains its footing at the end and overall is still a fantastic work far, far superior to previous orchestral arrangements for the series; only barely does it miss the standard of perfection set by the preceding two suites.
The fourth and final suite comes from "Final Fantasy", focusing exclusively on Nobuo Uematsu's contributions to Square's flagship series. To encapsulate the vast Nobuo Uematsu Final Fantasy canon in a single eighteen-minute arrangement is no doubt a daunting task, and the team behind Symphonic Fantasies made some unusual decisions perhaps to circumvent that problem and to differentiate their work from the many other Final Fantasy orchestral arrangements out there. Most surprising is the liberal manner with which they've interspersed the lighthearted Chocobo theme among much more dramatic themes from the series. It's good for a laugh the first time around but after a second time (and briefly being incorporating into "Bombing Mission" of all things) it lessens the dramatic impact of the surrounding themes and even the suite as a whole. It's also surprising that some of the great qualities of the other suites are often missing here. The frequent use of the chorus is as much a detriment as a benefit, taking a somewhat pompous sound in battle themes like FFVII's "Fighting" and "Bombing Mission" and FFV's "Battle on the Big Bridge". And though the themes in the other three suites progress as though they were always meant to be in exactly that order, the flow of the Final Fantasy suite isn't quite so natural. To the suite's credit it does offer a nice opening rendition of "Prelude", a mysterious yet beautifully naturalistic arrangement of FFVI's "Mystic Forest", and near its conclusion a captivating lead-in to the series main theme that hints at the sort of magical and unique Final Fantasy suite hoped for. Aside from those few moments, however, the suite doesn't offer much over other arrangements and performances for the series, and certainly doesn't compare to the three fantastic suites which precede it.
While each of the standout suites from Symphonic Fantasies has its own unique traits, certain special qualities are common to all three. Though the orchestral performance as a whole is fantastic, the strings section in particular is outstanding - far more expressive than I find in most soundtracks. Another special quality lies in the suites' overall structure. Around the two-thirds or three-quarters point of the Kingdom Hearts, Mana and Chrono suites each sounds as if it's coming to a close - and each would make an entirely satisfying experience even if that were the case - yet each then comes back to life with a major theme followed by another, sometimes even more satisfying conclusion. That significant something extra adds to the sense that the arrangements in Symphonic Fantasies not only live up to expectations but surpass them.
Frankly the Secret of Mana suite alone is enough to make Symphonic Fantasies an essential album. That the suites for the Chrono series and even Kingdom Hearts offer almost equally memorable experiences with unique qualities of their own only sweetens the deal. Against such high standards the Final Fantasy suite becomes mostly a novelty, but there are plenty of places for Final Fantasy music to be found. Nothing like the other three suites in Symphonic Fantasies will you hear anywhere else.