The Shenmue Orchestra Version commemorates the main themes from the famous Sega RPG Shenmue in a high quality arranged album. Experienced game and anime composer Hayato Matsuo blended the Asian melodies of the original score with the sensibilities of Western orchestration throughout the album. His orchestrations were subsequently performed by the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra and several soloists. While only eight tracks long, the resulting album features some of the most beautiful orchestrations in the history of game music. Does this make it a worthwhile purchase?
The soundtrack begins with Takenobu Mitsuyoshi's legendary title theme "Shenmue ~Sedge Tree~". After a deep martial opening, the main melody is beautifully presented on a kokyu — a traditional Chinese bowed instrument — by Jia Peng-Fang. Hayato Matsuo's initially barren orchestration emphasises the radiance of the instrument, but later becomes richer as the arrangement glides through brooding, action-packed, and prideful sections. The final feature combines the cinematic feel of Western scores with a distinctive Eastern flair and proves even more emotional than the original version.
Hayato Matsuo elaborates on this approach in subsequent arrangements on the album. "Endless Earth" begins as one of the most dark and desolate arrangements on the album, but gradually blooms into a motivating theme. Closely inspired by the main themes, Tsuyoshi Yanagawa's melody brings a very personal quality to the theme and the effect is enhanced by the passionate piano work running throughout. Tsuyoshi Watanabe's sole orchestration on the album, "The Morning Fog's Wave", elaborates even further this format. After a yanchin and kokyu introduction, the arrangement builds into a stunning section dominated by sweeping string melodies and piano arpeggios. While schmaltzy, many will have such powerful memories of the game that this does not matter. The final result is still beauty to my ears regardless.
There are also some darker moments on the album. The action theme "The Lion's Banner" demonstrates Hayato Matsuo's strength simultaneously bringing out the drama and lyricism lying behind certain melodies. The tribal percussion is a driving force during the primary sections while the development sections offer a deeper perspective on the melody. Prior to the conclusion, Matsuo offers a deliciously dark and dissonant track in "The Beggar", written in the spirit of Jerry Goldsmith. It's interesting that, even here, there are glimpses of hope and beauty reflecting the characters and scenery respectively. "A New Material" rounds off the dramatic arch with another fine orchestration. This is an encompassing item reflecting the contemplative, action-packed, sorrowful, and triumphant moments found within Yu Suzuki's epic.
Of all the material on the album, I am least fond of the interpretations of "Shenfa". The original melody has always come across slightly too sentimental to me and suffers too much focus on the instrumental arrangement. However, the kokyu performance still creates the desired effect and the orchestral support is subdued yet motivating. The vocal rendition at the end of the album was an inspired conception, but the vocalist doesn't adapt the appropriate style for the song and suffers from intonation problems during the development section. This exacerbates the effects of the contrived melody and many will want to turn off as a result.
The Shenmue Orchestra Version features several major highlights. The gorgeous melodies, orchestrations, and performances of "Shenmue", "Endless Earth", and "The Morning Fog's Wave" ensure they are simply must-listens. Most of the other tracks add to the diversity and drama of the album too, staying true to the spirit of the original game and reflecting Hayato Matsuo as a top-class orchestrator. Unfortunately, the album doesn't fully compensate for its misplaced focus on "Shenfa" as it is only eight tracks long and ends after just 37 minutes. I do not regret purchasing it, as it contains several of my all-time favourite game orchestrations, but those looking for a more encompassing experience might wish to think twice. Either way, this is a solid if slightly sparing production.