Review: Benyamin Nuss Plays Uematsu (Deutsche Grammophon, 2010)

by James M. Potter

If ever there were an indication that the slow legitimisation of music originally conceived for video games has born fruit, this is surely it. That the historic Deutsche Grammophon label, highly esteemed for the quality of its core classical releases, should now release a whole album of solo piano arrangements of one Japanese game composer shows recognition of the recent surge in popularity of this form. Where once players were content for music to be an adjunct to the game experience, now they seek to make it central. Evidence of this can be found in the increasingly popular concerts of ‘video game music’, in the market for OST (Original Sound Track) releases, and, as here, in high-quality arrangements.

Nobuo Uematsu enjoys huge esteem, especially in Japan, largely on account of his contributions to the soundtracks of various entries in the vastly popular Final Fantasy series published by Square Enix. Understandably the selection here trades heavily on that legacy, but also include arrangements from several of Uematsu’s more recent scores, Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey.

The success of the collection is due in no small part to the skill of the arrangers, including Final Fantasy veteran Shiro Hamaguchi and Bill Dobbins, who have clearly had enormous fun amplifying Uematsu’s melodies and harmonies to Lisztian proportions in line with the transition from synthesiser to virtuoso live performer. Uematsu’s already late-romantic sensibility is well-served by this treatment, which only occasionally becomes over-zealously bombastic. Sensitive treatments include fan favourite Terra’s Theme and the nostalgic Where I Belong which manages to retain the wistful naivety of the original. There is also a lively medley of moments from Final Fantasy VII, artfully woven together. It helps, of course, that Nuss himself plays with all the consummate skill, authority, and finely-honed musicianship of a great pianist, as well as with sincere affection for the music.

And what of the music itself? The attractive melodies for which Uematsu is well-known are given sensitive settings, and perhaps inevitably it is his rather more boisterous, rock-influenced battle themes which emerge rather less conducive to the solo piano treatment. These are relatively few, however, so for the most part one can wallow in the charm and easy grace of Uematsu’s muse. The quality of both arrangements and playing do much to lift the collection above the easy-listening drudgery of neo-Romantic pastiche it might otherwise have fallen into.

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On a personal note, it would be interesting to know what sort of take-up an album of this sort has with those who have not played the games in question. For example, I find the selections from Lost Odyssey more forgettable than the earlier tunes, which have acquired ‘classic’ status since the nineties – but is that because I played the Final Fantasy games, but not the others in the collection? Or are the other tracks simply less inspired? It’s probably impossible for me to make a rational and objective judgement. It may well be that I only enjoy the Final Fantasy arrangements because they remind me of playing the games themselves, in which case they could be said to fail as stand-alone works – not to mention rendering the foregoing review somewhat meaningless. But I would like to think that my musical discernment is not so easily overcome.

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