Bach – Cantatas Vol.1 (182; 81; 129)
J.S. Bach-Stiftung; Rudolf Lutz
Bach-Stiftung A909

The J.S. Bach-Stiftung, a Swiss enterprise, is committed to performing all of J.S. Bach’s vocal music. Many of these performances (we are not told how many) will also find their way to CDs. This is the first installment; recorded in 2007 and 2008 and published in 2011 but only now released in North America (the project has now reached volume 12). It contains recordings of three cantatas: the early Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV182), written for Weimar in 1714, and two cantatas which belong to Bach’s first Leipzig cycle: Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV81) and Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott (BWV129).

The conductor, Rudolf Lutz, uses a small chamber orchestra and a small chamber choir. The size is in between the strictly one-to-a-part approach of Joshua Rifkin and the slightly larger ensembles employed by conductors like John Eliot Gardiner or Philippe Herreweghe. The singing is strong (I especially liked Claude Eichenberger, one of the alto soloists) but the real glory of the performances is in the instrumental work. There is a wonderful duet between violin (Renate Steinmann) and recorder (Armelle Plantier) at the opening of the first cantata and an equally fine oboe d’amore obbligato part (Esther Fluor) in the alto aria of the final work.

Of the three cantatas on this disc only the second is at all well known (it is described in great detail in John Eliot Gardiner’s recent biography). I was glad to make the acquaintance of the other two.

 

02_Mozart_Piau.jpgMozart – Desperate Heroines
Sandrine Piau; Mozarteum Orchestra, Salzburg; Ivor Bolton
Naïve V5366

Sandrine Piau has not recorded the music of Mozart since her Mozart Opera Arias in 2001. The latest album on the progressive label Naïve (known for its recordings of the complete works of Vivaldi) is dedicated to Mozart heroines, but not necessarily the best-known ones. The disc is certainly filled with arias that rarely receive recording treatment. This speaks to Piau’s in-depth knowledge of the composer’s output and her security in the belief that as a soprano in demand all over the world, she has arrived and does not have to cater to more common tastes.

The former harpist is particularly celebrated for her vocal performances of the Baroque repertoire – the music she discovered after an encounter with William Christie, the period performance guru. It was Christie who encouraged her to forgo the harp and start singing. Piau’s voice seems uniquely suited to Baroque music, with its singular clarity and purity of line. This is a voice with a lean, almost austere tone. There is no velvet here, no softness and padding – just a simple strand of gold. That is why some, including this writer, may find her interpretations of Mozart’s music somewhat lacking. Then again, after her transformative recordings of Vivaldi and Handel, it was time to balance the score. As the artist herself says: “Mozart allows me to regain my focus; he preserves that miraculous balance that can so easily be disturbed in the whirlwind of life.”

 

03_Lemieux.jpgChansons Perpétuelles
Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Roger Vignoles; Quatuor Psophos
Naïve V 5355

Fin de siècle chansons reflect the obsessions of the age: decadence, degeneration, neurosis and ennui that were exquisitely expressed in sublime melody, drawing the listener ever inward to explore psyche’s secrets. A rich and rarified tapestry created by composers of the age is fertile ground for a singer possessing an affinity for the texts as well as great depth of expression in vocal performance. Marie-Nicole Lemieux has carefully studied, crafted and delivered this to perfection, bringing to life all the dishevelled beauty this repertoire offers. Guided by the deft hand of pianist Roger Vignoles, joined by Quatuor Psophos in the Nocturne from Guillaume Lekeu’s Trois Poèmes and in Ernest Chausson’s Chanson Perpétuelle, she rides the instrumental undercurrents with poetic charm and grace. Lemieux’s light touch and agile playfulness in Fauré’s Mandoline contrasts nicely with a sorrowful Mein Liebster singt from Wolf’s Italianiensches Liederbuch and excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s Six Romances which highlight the sheer drama of her rich contralto. The character of the CD is largely intimate – the final track around which she chose the program, Chanson Perpétuelle, is the most operatic of all the selections: Lemieux’s portrait of an abandoned woman’s angst skillfully intertwined with the quartet’s mesmerizing performance.

 

01_Ensemble_Vesuvio.jpgLa Meglio Giuventù
Vesuvius Ensemble
Modica Music MM0014
(vesuviusensemble.com)

With Giovanni Kapsberger the only named composer on just two of the 13 tracks on this CD, it is clear that its performers were seeking a selection of popular Italian music, reflecting their dedication to the performance and preservation of traditional folk music from Naples and Southern Italy. Take O matrimonio do Guarracino, a traditional piece from 18th-century Campania. Francesco Pellegrino’s voice is as Italian as his name and not only are we transported to Campania with his vocals but the four accompanying instruments all have a strong Italian heritage: mandolin, baroque guitar, chitarra battente and colascione. The third of these is played without a plectrum and can be plucked, strummed or beaten, hence the term battente.

 And colascione? That is a long-necked Italian lute. One of the Kapsberger pieces fully tests its capabilities with the demanding techniques of the Italian baroque guitar. Those who yearn for something else equally unknown can enjoy a hurdy-gurdy courtesy of Ben Grossman, who accompanies Pellegrino’s magnificent voice. Invocazione alla Madonna dell’Arco, for all its traditional Campanian background, could have graced any medieval court, enhanced by the haunting sound of the hurdy-gurdy.

 A more conventional Kapsberger composition is Sfessiana, a soothing and thoughtful duet for theorbo (Lucas Harris) and baroque lute (Marco Cera). Another piece enjoying a normal setting is La morte de mariteto, where Pellegrino’s voice and Lucas Harris’ lively lute playing show the enduring popularity of this combination throughout the Renaissance.

After introducing us to four popular plucked instruments, La Meglio Giuventù concludes with three percussion instruments and the ciaramella, a double reed conical bore instrument which eventually became the oboe. It is raucous and passionate – like the Vesuvius Ensemble.

 

02_Marais.jpgMarais – Suites for Oboe
Christopher Palameta; Eric Tinkerhess; Romain Falik; Lisa Goode Crawford
Audax Records ADX 13702
(audax-records.fr)

Fans of baroque music on period instruments will appreciate this recording, not only for its sheer beauty, but also as a musicological project. Baroque oboist Christopher Palameta, a Montrealer who did a four-year stint with Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, currently lives in Paris and is in demand with period instrument ensembles in Europe and North America. This recording is a culmination of several years of research into some of the neglected works of French composer Marin Marais (1656-1728; some might recall Marais as the central figure in the 1991 movie Tous les Matins du Monde).

All of the music here is drawn from Marais’ Piéces de viole; published in five volumes, the six suites included are from the second (1701), third (1711) and fourth (1717) volumes. While written for the viol, Marais himself insisted that his compositions could be played on a wide range of instruments, including the oboe; as Palameta explains, for technical reasons some pieces are better suited to a high wind instrument than others, particularly those written for the viol’s top string – my understanding is that these are the movements selected and transcribed for this project.

Each of the suites is comprised of five to seven movements: beginning with a prélude. Typical dance movements follow, which might include a courante, sarabande, menuet, gavotte, gigue, and sometimes a rondeau champêtre, passacaille, or fantaisie for variety. My personal favourites include the muzettes in the Suite in G Minor, and the short but unusual La Biscayenne (referring to the Basque country of northern Spain) which concludes the recording.

Palameta plays with the highest degree of refinement and musical sensitivity throughout, displaying a velvety warm tone and fluid ornamentation. He is accompanied by Eric Tinkerhess (viola da gamba), Romain Falik (theorbo) and Lisa Goode Crawford (harpsichord). To learn more, visit ensemblenotturna.com.

 

03_Greene.jpgMaurice Greene – Overtures
Baroque Band; Garry Clarke
Cedille CDR 90000 152

Aficionados of English classical music endured decades of the taunt “Who was the greatest English composer between Purcell and Elgar? Handel!” Dr. Arne’s masque Alfred (including Rule Britannia) and William Boyce’s eight symphonies (“as English as a country garden”) somehow weren’t up to scratch. William Boyce’s tutor was Maurice Greene, who is forgotten even among baroque enthusiasts. Enter Chicago-based Garry Clarke and the Baroque Band. Their interpretation of Greene’s Overture for St. Cecilia’s Day is lively and effervescent – how appropriate for the patroness of music!

This spirited approach continues with the allegro assai, andante and vivace of Greene’s first overture (D major). The other overtures too, delight the listener: note the chirping first allegro of the fourth overture or the presto of the fifth, just two of what the sleeve-notes describe as “whistleable melodies.” And what else does the Baroque Band cram into this wonderful introduction to Maurice Greene? Well, Greene composed a pastoral opera Phoebe. The allegro to its overture must have conveyed a tremendous sense of expectation to the audience.

There’s even more. David Schrader is soloist in Greene’s Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord. As an example, the pieces in C minor are demanding but still bring home the liveliness of English baroque music. Greene deserves much more recognition, not least as he was organist of St. Paul’s and of the Chapel Royal, Master of the King’s Music and Professor of Music at Cambridge. Garry Clarke is, I hope, the pioneer of a long-overdue revival.

 

04_Bach_Well-Tempered.jpgBach – Well-Tempered Clavier Book II
Luc Beauséjour
Naxos 8.570564-65

In the CDs of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier some performers use a modern piano, while other performances are on instruments that Bach was familiar with: the clavichord, the organ and (most often) the harpsichord. I am not about to launch into a diatribe on the unsuitability of the modern piano. It is true that I have never liked Glenn Gould’s Bach (sacrilege!) but I have listened with pleasure to Rosalyn Tureck, to Keith Jarrett and especially, to Angela Hewitt.

Beauséjour is a French-Canadian musician, who studied in Montreal with Mireille and Bernard Lagacé and subsequently in Europe with Ton Koopman and Kenneth Gilbert. He won First Prize in the 1985 Erwin Bodky International Harpsichord Competition in Boston. He has recorded a substantial number of works by Bach, including Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (also on Naxos).

For the sake of comparison I have been listening to two other performances on the harpsichord: those by Masaaki Suzuki (on BIS) and those by Christophe Rousset (on Harmonia Mundi). I felt that Beauséjour was holding his own, although of the three I liked the Rousset best since he found a poetic quality that was not always there in the other two. I have to add though, that when I want to listen to these Preludes and Fugues, it is the Angela Hewitt recording (on Hyperion) that I shall play most often. That goes to show that, for me at any rate, a stupendous technique, clarity of voicing, a wonderful sense of phrasing, a subtle sense of rubato and a thorough grasp of baroque performance practice matter more than whether these pieces are played on the “correct” instrument.

 

05_Bach_Viola.jpgBach – Krebs – Abel
Helen Callus; Luc Beauséjour
Analekta AN 2 9879

Though Bach’s longest and most major career posting, in Leipzig, kept him more than busy writing and preparing music for the church, he managed to find time to continue composing extraordinary chamber music as the director of the town’s Collegium Musicum. This ensemble of students and young professionals would give weekly performances at Zimmerman’s coffee house. It is thought that Bach wrote the three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord (BWV1027-1029) for performances by members of this Schola Cantorum. They are a combination of new compositions and arrangements of existing music written for other forces.

These three extraordinary pieces form the centrepiece of this fine recording by violist Helen Callus and harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour. Also included are a gamba sonata by Carl Friedrich Abel and Callus’ arrangement of a movement from a trio by Johann Ludwig Krebbs. Both Krebbs and Abel had close family connections to Bach.

From the opening plaintive notes of this beautiful recording, violist Callus’ rich and gorgeous tone announces that these will be performances of a high standard. Though they share a range, there are major differences in timbre and intensity of sound between the viola and the gamba which take getting used to, but the clarity and sensitivity of Callus’ playing is so compelling that one is drawn past the instrument directly to the music. As always, Luc Beauséjour’s playing is elegant and stylish. Highly recommended.

 

06_Beethoven_Period.jpgBeethoven, Period
Matt Haimovitz; Christopher O’Riley
Pentatone PTC 5186 475

Beethoven’s interest in the cello appears to have begun early on. His first set of two cello sonatas Op.5 were written in 1796 in his 26th year, his last, Op.102, dates from 1815, by which time the composer was experiencing the trauma of increasing deafness. In between came another sonata and three sets of variations, all of them presented here in this two-disc Pentatone/Oxingale recording featuring cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley, the first in a series titled Beethoven, Period.

Most cellists choose to perform on early instruments, and Haimovitz is no exception – his cello of choice is a Goffriller, crafted in Venice in 1710. But rather than overpower the cello with a modern concert grand as is sometimes the case with cello/piano pairings, O’Riley proves to be the perfect musical partner in his use of an 1823 Broadwood pianoforte, both instruments tuned slightly below the standard A440. The result is a wonderfully authentic sound, very close to what Beethoven would have heard in the early 19th century

The first CD contains the earliest two sonatas and the 12 Variations on See the Conquering Hero Comes of Handel. From the opening hesitant measures of the Sonata in F Major, we sense the two artists are in full command of the repertoire. Their playing is stylish and precise while the interaction of the two period instruments allows for a compelling degree of transparency.

In disc two, we move into a new period in Beethoven’s style – the Sonatas Op.69 and Op.102 show evidence of a more mature style, somewhat darker and more dramatic, while the seven variations on Bei Männern... from Mozart’s The Magic Flute aptly demonstrate Beethoven’s facility at extemporizing on a popular theme. The “magic moment” for me on this disc came in the second movement Adagio con moto sentimento d’affetto of the Sonata Op.102, No.2. Here Haimovitz’s lyrical tone and the sensitive interpretation by O’Riley evoke a wonderful sense of mystery before the start of the jubilant Allegretto fugato, bringing both the sonata and the set to a most satisfying conclusion.

Bravo to both artists in this exemplary pairing; the “great mogul” himself would have been pleased.

 

07_Assi_Karttunen.jpgBeyond the River God
Assi Karttunen
Divine Art dds 25120
(divineartrecords.com)

This intriguing program of music for solo harpsichord makes unexpected but successful partners of Baroque France’s great François Couperin, who died in 1733, and the gifted English composer Graham Lynch, who is still very much alive. Couperin’s music here, a prélude from his L’Art de toucher le claveçin and four other pieces from various of his Ordres, makes up just over one-third of the substantial track list, and Finnish harpsichordist Assi Karttunen’s supple interpretation of L’Exquise from Ordre XXVII is particularly beautiful.

That said, where Karttunen really shines is in Lynch’s music for her instrument, which reflects both a panoply of stylistic influences and a well-nuanced understanding of how to compose for the harpsichord. Karttunen’s playing is deftly mercurial in the second Rondeau of the five-movement Beyond the River God, and she’s introspective yet always welcoming in the many meditative movements of this and other works. A particular small delight is the short, stand-alone Ay!, which to me sounds a little like what Edgar Allen Poe might have improvised over a French ground bass. The four movements of Lynch’s Petenera make perhaps the best connection in spirit to the unmeasured préludes of Couperin’s time; you can almost see Couperin listening curiously from the doorframe. The recorded sound is beautiful, and Karttunen’s notes offer much food for thought. The combining of old and new music can be tricky alchemy, but this experiment is a happy success.

 

01_Beethoven_Explored.jpgBeethoven Explored – The Chamber Eroica
Aaron Short; Peter Sheppard Skǽrved; Dov Scheindlin; Neil Heyde
Metier msvcd 2008
(divineartrecords.com)

It may come as a surprise to those of us accustomed to hearing a symphony performed by a full orchestra that during the early 19th century, an adaptation for a much smaller ensemble would have been a perfectly acceptable means of presenting large-scale works, particularly in domestic settings. Indeed, there was an enormous demand for arrangements during the days before recorded music, and this is the idea behind The Chamber Eroica. It’s the sixth in a series titled Beethoven Explored on the British label Metier, and features pianist Aaron Shorr, violinist Peter Sheppard Skǽrved, violist Dov Scheindlin and cellist Neil Heyde in a piano quartet version of Beethoven’s Symphony No.3.

The groundbreaking third symphony was completed in 1804, while this anonymous arrangement – requested by Beethoven himself – was published just three years later. Hence, this recording (the first ever) provides the modern-day listener with a keen insight as to what the composer had in mind with respect to chamber arrangements of his orchestral works. And without the use of period instruments, the four performers admirably evoke a rightful sense of grandeur in this majestic symphony. The opening movement, marked Allegro Moderato, contains a wonderful sense of momentum with the central theme continually being passed among the piano and the strings. The second movement is suitably sombre and mysterious and the third movement scherzo, all lightness and grace. While it would be challenging to duplicate the grandeur of the finale with a four-piece ensemble, the players ably capture its optimistic buoyancy.

In all fairness, there are instances when the arrangement seems not as performer-friendly as it might be. At times, the violist’s range seems uncomfortably high and the strings are sometimes required to perform melodic lines ordinarily given to the woodwinds. But the group remains undaunted and produces a most satisfying sound very much in keeping with the robust spirit of the original work.

The disc is to be commended on two levels: exemplary performances by the four musicians; and for providing the present-day listener with a glimpse into a particular facet of music-making during the early 19th century. Highly recommended.

 

02_Sokolov_Salzburg.jpgSokolov – The Salzburg Recital
Grigory Sokolov
Deutsche Grammophon 4794342

New recordings of Grigory Sokolov are few and far between, so any addition to the catalogue is an event. His playing is always compelling, not least because of his unique approach. He is a link to the golden age of Russian pianists and his distinctive playing style is easily identified by his admirers.

Sokolov began piano studies at the age of five and gave his first major recital in Moscow at 12 playing, so it is reported, works by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Liszt, Debussy and Shostakovich. He was unanimously awarded the Gold Medal in the 1965 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition.

Now aged 64 and “a legend in his own lifetime,” he is in a position to announce that “I play only what I want to play.” His Mozart, though slow, is never laboured or ponderous, being extremely controlled; the long phrases are felt out with utmost certainty in spite of an almost dry approach and contained dynamics. This is utterly compelling Mozart, a perfect example of restraint yielding deeply satisfying results. A dissenting opinion from that of other artists but Mozart’s mercurial genius allows for this.

This recital of Chopin’s 24 Preludes would be one of my desert island discs. In keeping with his way, each of the 24 has an individual character and taken together they are a marvel of authority and subtlety. I compared these to his June 17, 1990 Paris recording (Naïve CD, OP30336) finding that it lacked the deeply introspective and mesmerizing intensity of this astonishing Salzburg performance.

The six encores (Chopin, Scriabin, Rameau and Bach) are no less considered. This is the first release from DG which has contracted to record his live concerts.

 

03_Liszt_Hewitt.jpgLiszt – Piano Sonata; Dante Sonata; Petrarch Sonnets
Angela Hewitt
Hyperion CDA68067

The name Franz Liszt conjures up pianistic showmanship of devilishly difficult bravura pieces that have enthralled audiences for nearly 200 years. Many pianists fall easily under this spell, but Angela Hewitt is certainly not one of them. Her new recording and her first brave foray into Liszt territory is the most unforgiving, immensely difficult B Minor Sonata, 30 minutes long in one single movement that can easily lapse into aimless banging on the piano, sound and fury signifying nothing from a lesser hand. Technical brilliance almost taken for granted, her approach is essentially analytical, fully understanding the structure, the relationships of parts to the whole, the thematic, harmonic and rhythmical subtleties, avoiding excesses so the work feels an integral whole and shines in all its majesty.

The essence of Liszt in Hewitt’s words, “Nobility of spirit and depth of expression,” is also manifest in the second major item here, written during his Années de pèlerinage in Italy, the Dante Sonata, its program much inspired by the Inferno, giving ample room for the pianist’s unbridled imagination in depicting the horrors of hell and the exquisite tenderness of “Nessun maggior dolore/Che ricordarsi nel tempo felice” (Dante’s Inferno), of recalling past happiness in time of pain. The wonderful tremolo at the high end of the keyboard representing unattainable Paradiso is especially poignant and moving.

In between these two mountain peaks there is a valley of heavenly peace, the three Sonetti del Petrarca , whose love poems Liszt set into music for his beloved Countess Marie, played with languid gentleness and throbs of passion. All this adds up to another triumph in Ottawa-born Hewitt’s extraordinary career.

 

04_Brahms_Serenades.jpgBrahms – Serenades
Leipzig Gewandhausorchester;
Riccardo Chailly
Decca 4786775

Following Chailly’s sensational performances of the Brahms Symphonies and the usual orchestral works that earned universal rave reviews (Decca 4785344, 3 CDs) we have all waited with great expectations to hear his Serenades.

It is an absolute joy to have these rather brisk, smiling performances of the two neglected early orchestral gems that Brahms wrote on the way to the symphonies. The 25-year-old composer already had an uncanny sense of what he wanted to do with an orchestra; as clearly present are what would become his characteristic orchestral colour and deployment of instruments. The first Serenade was composed in 1857-58, some three years after the first piano concerto of 1854. That concerto was first conceived as a symphony but Brahms re-thought it as a concerto. Similarly, these lyrical Serenades are Brahms’ second and third symphonic ventures wherein he stepped back a little to produce two youthful and breezy works for reduced orchestra. Reduced size does not however mean reduced invention; merely a less ponderous symphonic argument. The First Symphony was conceived during this time and had a gestation period of 20 years until 1875 when “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony” was delivered.

Compared to other recorded versions, the breezy youthfulness of the present performances has a charming alfresco quality with vivacious tempi that neither undersell nor oversell the orchestral weight. Chailly and his vibrant orchestra, particularly the winds and horns, are flawlessly attuned to these scores, making this recording the very best version to own.

 

05_Gounod_Symphonies.jpgGounod – Symphonies 1-3
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana; Oleg Caetani
CPO 777 863-2

Glancing at the title there are a number of personal discoveries here, including Gounod as a symphonist, the orchestra and the conductor and even the recording company. An interesting fellow, that Gounod… He sprang into world fame in one fell swoop with one opera, Faust, so successful that it has held the stage for the past 150-odd years and made him very rich, but he never could write another comparable opera ever again. However, as a young man and prior to his fame, he did dabble in orchestral composition with two symphonies plus an incomplete third, the latter newly discovered in a historic first performance here. Needless to say all were duly forgotten and completely overshadowed by Faust.

Fine works these are indeed in the hands of the extremely capable Italian conductor and Karajan Competition-winner Oleg Caetani who studied under the legendary Franco Ferrara (much admired in my teenage years when I saw him and he pretty well made me discover Schubert!). Much like the First of Beethoven, also inspired by Haydn, Gounod’s Symphony in D Major is a real charmer with finely sprung rhythms, unmistakeably French in character and conducted with a light spirit making the music sing and dance joyfully with the trumpets ringing out triumphantly at the end.

The more ambitious and mature Second Symphony in E-Flat Major already foreshadows the wonderful garden love scene in Faust. It is so lovingly performed with shimmering colours that it alone would make this disc worthwhile.

06_Saint_Saens_Symphony_3.jpgSaint-Saëns – Symphony No.3 “Organ”
Vincent Warnier; Orchestre National de Lyon; Leonard Slatkin
Naxos 8.573331

This disc is recommended for any collection lacking the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony (1886). Organist Vincent Warnier and conductor Leonard Slatkin give a colourful reading, creating a coherent whole from diversity. In the opening movement strings and winds complement each other. The Lyon winds in particular are superb, both as soloists and as a wind choir, playing everything from busy double-note figures to the chorale theme. Saint-Saëns held off introducing the organ until after the sublime transition at the close of the first movement. This passage is paced and balanced expertly by Slatkin, and the following Poco adagio with its beautiful romantic harmony is alone worth the disc’s price. The organ becomes a new force, connecting well to wind and brass timbres while supporting the strings’ melodic voice. The scherzo’s tricky ensemble and the lightning-fast trio with its piano flourishes are handled impeccably. A foursquare and populist finale that incorporates brilliant brass and organ, ingenious development of the chorale theme and the Dies irae and much besides, ought not to work but on this recording it does!

The Lyon Auditorium organ on this recording is a refurbished transplant from Paris of the Cavaillé-Coll instrument on which Cyprès et Lauriers (1919) was premiered. Warnier is sensitive to the composer`s late exploratory chromaticism in the solo organ lament Cyprès, and appropriately celebratory in Lauriers for organ and orchestra. An ingenious transcription of Saint-Saëns’s well-known Danse macabre completes the disc.

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