01 Schumann MythenSchumann – Myrthen
Camilla Tilling; Christian Gerhaher; Gerold Huber
Sony Classical 19075945362 (sonyclassical.de)

“To my beloved Clara on the eve of our wedding from her Robert.” So wrote Robert Schumann on a specially bound set of 26 recently composed songs dedicated to Clara, collectively titled Myrthen for the myrtle branches and flowers that traditionally adorned bridal wreaths.

In it, Schumann drew from nine poets, with Rückert, Goethe, Heine and Robert Burns (in translation) accounting for 19 of the songs. Schumann specified those to be sung by a woman or a man, suggesting a young couple’s ongoing relationship. Here, the appropriately light-and-bright voices of soprano Camilla Tilling and baritone Christian Gerhaher are ably supported by pianist Gerold Huber.

Myrthen begins with the well-known Widmung (my favourite among Schumann’s 250-plus songs); others in the set that will be familiar to many are Der Nussbaum, Die Lotosblume and Du bist wie eine Blume. Of those less-often encountered, the tender Lieder der Braut and Hochländisches Wiegenlied, the sprightly Räthsel and Niemand, and the plaintive Aus den hebräischen Gesängen are particularly gratifying. The wistful, concluding Zum Schluss promises, almost prophetically, that only in heaven will the couple receive “a perfect wreath.”

Robert and Clara married in 1840, after years of obstruction from Clara’s father. Sadly, their marriage ended in 1856 with Robert’s early death in a mental asylum. Myrthen, Robert’s wedding gift to Clara, thus represents an enduring, significant, poignant testament to what is surely classical music’s most enduring, significant and poignant love story. Texts and translations are included.

02 A Voice of Her OwnA Voice of Her Own – Musical Women Who Persisted 1098-1896
Toronto Chamber Choir; Lucas Harris
Independent n/a (torontochamberchoir.ca)

Sacred and secular music require two wholly different mindsets and the singers of the Toronto Chamber Choir, with Lucas Harris as artistic director, have the wherewithal to do both in spades. Both genres demand an immersion of sorts into the music itself. The performance by this choir does more than simply tick all the boxes; it soars impossibly high, taking the music to another realm altogether. Another challenge – admirably handled by the choir – is the fact that the music spans almost 800 years of evolved tradition.

The program itself is an inspired one and is quite representative of women composers who, as the title suggests, emerged with high honours in a world dominated, at every level of art and its commerce, by men. This recording gets off to a glorious start with music by the ecstatic mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). In the extract from Ordo Virtutum, where the monastic nun adapted the language of visions and of religious poetry, the choir’s interpretation is resonant and retains the exquisite purity of the music.

From the soaring intensity of the anonymous 17th-century composition Veni, sancte Spiritus by the nuns of Monastère des Ursulines de Québec through songs from Gartenlieder by the prodigiously gifted Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) to the deep melancholia of Clara Schumann’s (1819-1896) work, the musicians and choristers achieve unmatched levels of elegance and refinement.

03 Whither Must I WanderWhither Must I Wander
Will Liverman; Jonathan King
Odradek ODRCD389 (odradek-records.com)

Wanderlust – both literal and figurative – lies dormant in the human genetic makeup. It is often awakened, especially among artists, and takes flight into both real and imagined landscapes often with breathtaking results. From Wandrers Nachtlied, Goethe’s poetry set to song by Nikolai Medtner, to lieder from Mondnacht penned by Robert Schumann; from Songs of Travel by Ralph Vaughan Williams to King David by Herbert Howells and At the River by Aaron Copland, Whither Must I Wander captures the timeless beauty of man’s propensity for real and imagined travel.

The music is interpreted by Will Liverman, an outstanding lieder singer blessed with a warm-toned baritone. Liverman shows himself to be an artist of the first order. His performance here eschews melodrama and his interpretations are understated yet powerfully convincing. Howells’ King David is typical. Although Liverman is still young, and will surely mature, his singing already combines an authoritative vocal sound with accomplished interpretative insights into the music.

Liverman has an outstanding relationship with pianist Jonathan King. Together the two parley with the familiarity of old friends. The singer is aware of when to recede from the spotlight, making way for King to embellish melodies. The pianist, for his part, always rises to the occasion; his playing is full of adventurous handling of harmony and tone. Together with Liverman’s vivid storytelling, this makes for a profoundly dramatic and characterful performance

04 EkmelesA Howl, That Was also a Prayer
New Focus Recordings FCR245 (newfocusrecordings.com)

New York-based contemporary new music vocal ensemble Ekmeles is spectacular in their first solo release. Featuring commissions by Christopher Trapani and Canadian Taylor Brook, and a third work by Erin Gee, the six singers perform these innovative 21st-century works with precision and understanding.

Brooks’ nine-part microtonal a cappella Motorman Sextet is based on David Ohle’s 1972 cult novel. The opening party-like vocal chatter sets the stage. The clear-spoken narrative by different voices features atmospheric backdrops like multi-voice unison spoken words, dynamic swells, held notes, high voice staccatos and atonal harmonic touches.

Gee sound-paints new dimensions to my favourite pastime in Three Scenes from Sleep, taken from a larger piece. No words here; just voice-created clicks, pops, rustles, held notes, rhythms, high-pitched intervals and the final closing more-song-like held-low note which musically illustrate the unconscious sleep state.

Trapani’s End Words features live voices with prerecorded vocal fragments and electronics. The three movements, based on texts by Anis Mojgani, Ciara Shuttleworth and John Ashbery respectively, are driven by tight ensemble performance. The first movement electronics add another voice to the clear ensemble articulations and swells with low drum-like thunder manipulations, squeaky electronic birds and plucked string effects. The closing third movement is unique with the opening electronic bell sounds leading to a strong electronic “duet” with the almost spoken vocals.

Director/baritone Jeffrey Gavett leads Ekmeles in an exciting futuristic musical direction.

Listen to 'A Howl, That Was also a Prayer' Now in the Listening Room

05 OgloudoglouOgloudoglou – Vocal masterpieces of the Experimental Generation 1960-1990
Sara Stowe
metier msv 28593 (divineartrecords.com)

English soprano Sara Stowe is a versatile and inventive musician with repertoire ranging from contemporary concert music to medieval song. A prize-winning harpsichordist and pianist at the start of her career, she then decided to learn 20th-century vocal music in Italy. One of her specialties is the songs of the outsider composer, Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), whose reputation leapt to international prominence only at the end of his life.

Ogloudoglou, titled after the song by the same name by Scelsi, is a skillfully curated album focused tightly on 11 art songs from 1960 to 1990 by what Stowe calls “the experimental generation.” She renders boundary-stretching songs by Italian composers Scelsi, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Niccoló Castiglioni and Sylvano Bussotti, as well as one each by the Argentine-German Mauricio Kagel and Americans John Cage and Morton Feldman. And experiment they did.

Outstanding tracks for me are Nono’s cinematic, epic La Fabbrica Illuminata for voice and tape, and the more concise, though perhaps even more musically compelling, Sequenza III by Berio. The latter is beautifully rendered by Stowe – and I’ve heard Cathy Berberian, for whom it was composed, perform it live.

Breathtakingly iconoclastic, perhaps even shocking when brand new, this tough song repertoire is little programmed today, at least in Canada. Stowe thus does us a favour, presenting her recital of songs by seminal later-generation high modernists with virtuoso verve. She committedly follows their demanding performance instructions and groundbreaking aesthetics, by the end winning over those who care to listen with her exhilarating musicality.

06 Sanctuary RoadPaul Moravec – Sanctuary Road
Soloists; Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra; Kent Tritle
Naxos 8.559884 (naxosdirect.com) 

Stories of the plight of the African slave in the US have echoed in the secrecy of the Underground Railroad for hundreds of years, the best of them recounted in prose, poetry and, somewhat recently, also in film. Musical stories – sung in the style of classic and modern blues and extended narrative jazz compositions – have also been heard. However, the operatic stage with live characters offers a distinctly different canvas where some of the most uplifting stories of the escape from slavery have been told.

In this most recent one, Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell have come together as musician and librettist in Sanctuary Road, to recreate epic narratives of William Still’s book The Underground Railroad. This is a powerful work, layered with meaning, rich in detail, tragedy and triumph and, above all, cathartic pathos. All of this takes more than the stories themselves. It takes a fabulous cast, which Moravec and Campbell have found in the singers and musicians of the Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra directed by Kent Tritle.

On Sanctuary Road Still’s narratives rise to a rarefied realm thanks to compelling performances by its soloists. Soprano Laquita Mitchell is radiant, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis is mesmerizing, and tenor Joshua Blue, baritone Malcolm J. Merriweather and bass-baritone Dashon Burton are spellbinding. Each of the soloists palpably evokes the suffering and joy of those who escaped to freedom from the American South into Canada.

01 Grauns1Del Signor Graun
Ludovice Ensemble
Veterum Musica VM021 (veterummusica.com)

Music at the court of Frederick the Great usually conjures up images of JJ Quantz and CPE Bach – or even Frederick himself. That image is now under challenge due to this recording of music by the brothers Graun, who occupied key positions during Frederick’s rule.

This CD features three sonatas by each composer. Some movements are highly spirited. Listen to the Poco Allegro from the opening to the Sonata in D by Carl Heinrich and then contrast it with the Largo from the same sonata; there is an almost hesitant entry of the flute. And some movements are genteel. The Adagio from the Sonata in G is thoughtful and measured.    

Then there is the other Graun, Johann Gottlieb. The Adagio from his Sonata in D demonstrates how much freedom this composer allowed his flutist, what with this movement’s forthright and almost chirpy playing, something enhanced in the following Allegro ma non molto. Joana Amorim obviously appreciates this tuneful opportunity, although it should not be allowed to overshadow Fernando Miguel Jalôto’s harpsichord playing.

Contrasted as they are in their approaches, these two composers’ works are rarely performed these days. It is time for them to be restored to a more popular status.

02 Schumann Symphonies Nos. 2 4 Schumann – Overture Genoveva; Symphonies 2 & 4
London Symphony Orchestra; Sir John Eliot Gardiner
LSO Live LSO0818 (naxosdirect.com)

Sir John Eliot Gardiner represents a new breed of conductors, like Norrington, Jacobs and others who began their careers in Baroque repertoire with period instrument orchestras and then through the back door, came to the classics and Romantics and modern symphony orchestras. Gardiner with the LSO and modern instruments interestingly now turns to the very Romantic music of Robert Schumann.

Schumann’s symphonies have been much maligned in the past by critics saying that he couldn’t orchestrate, but actually this was caused, in Gardiner’s words, by “the late 19th century, opulent concept of Schumann” with muddied textures resulting from the over-Romantic approach of conductors of the time. Gardiner intends to rectify this by bringing “freshness, vivaciousness and clarity” and clean and transparent textures, using his previous experiences with period orchestras.

The Fourth is a particular favourite of mine and also it seems a favourite of conductors. It’s compact, optimistic, forward-looking and full of surprises. Note how Schumann links the movements together with no stops between them, the “trombone sigh” in the first movement development or the mysterious transition between the end of the third and beginning of the fourth movement. I remember Solti practically dancing the lovely melody in the last movement.

The Second is a turbulent affair, a work of genius; the first movement especially, a tremendous tour de force of a single strong rhythmic theme relentlessly driven with neverending variants towards a strong conclusion on the brass. Gardiner opts for fast speeds throughout (except for the heavenly Adagio espressivo) that can be very exciting, but can be detrimental to the beauty of the details. Bernstein’s magisterial reading with the VPO is still my benchmark.

03 Piccolo ConcertosjpgPiccolo Concertos
Jean-Louis Beaumadier; Prague RSO; Vahan Mardirossian
Skarbo DSK3192 (site.skarbo.fr) 

How extraordinary is this recording of the Prague Radio Symphony and virtuoso piccolo crusader, Jean-Louis Beaumadier! Smashing any expectations of the loud, piercing or vulgar, this first-ever CD comprised entirely of piccolo concerti with full orchestra, casts the solo instrument in a most reflective, sweet and expressive light. From the outset, the neo-Romantic/impressionist music of Florentine Mulsant offers both soloist and orchestra multiple opportunities to soar, which they do marvellously. With whole-tone passages, Ravel-like transparencies and their sensitive rendering, it is compelling listening.

The well-known staple amongst serious piccolo players, Lowell Liebermann’s Concerto follows and then a colourful, newly orchestrated version of Joachim Andersen’s Moto Perpetuo. On both, Beaumadier assures us of his utter command of the instrument through impressive technical displays and his trademark control of hushed pianissimos.

While the redundancy of both of these works being available online (in other versions) might diminish the CD’s value, the sheer magic of this album lies in the remaining three concerti and the Mulsant, all dedicated to Beaumadier and composed since 2012. Véronique Poltz‘s “Kilumac” Concertino is brooding and suspenseful and showcases Beaumadier‘s stellar flutter-tonguing. Various minimalist ostinati spin ethereal tapestries in Régis Campo’s Touch the Sky, over which the soloist weaves evocative threads. In conclusion, the final Concerto composed by the late Jean-Michel Damase is a poetic, three-movement masterpiece, filled with humour, episodic melodic sonority and brilliant orchestration. Simply forget that it’s for a piccolo; this recording is truly a musical delight.

04 Mahler 4Mahler 4
Carolyn Sampson; Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
BIS BIS-2356 (naxosdirect.com) 

Osmo Vänskä continues his ongoing Mahler cycle in this fifth instalment of his well-received survey of the complete symphonies. Composed at the dawn of the 20th century, Mahler’s uncharacteristically carefree and nostalgic Fourth Symphony turns the classical conventions of the symphonic tradition of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert on its head with a dark, ofttimes menacing humour. This wry, affectionate sarcasm is, for me, best captured in the classic 1965 recording by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra at the height of their fame. Though Vänskä does not command the subtle structural micro-shifts of tempo Szell was able to coax from his notoriously intimidated band in the first two movements, the amiable Minnesotans still have much to offer. I particularly enjoyed the hushed serenity of the opening of the adagio movement and the expanded dynamic range the digital process enables. At times I even felt that the musicians are almost too fastidious – the unique melodic unison of four flutes in the first movement is so unnervingly in tune that the evocative, distant fuzziness of this moment is lost.

Carolyn Sampson is the vocal soloist in the finale of the work, to which she lends the stipulated youthful, angelic tone along with excellent diction. Curiously, a photograph in the erudite booklet shows her performing from the rear of the stage on a riser next to three trumpets, though in the digital mix she is very much front and centre. I would have preferred to experience the true ambience of this accommodating stage placement. That aside, this is an excellent rendition that I very much enjoyed.

05 Deeper the blueThe Deeper the Blue…
Janet Sung; Simon Callaghan; Britten Sinfonia; Jae van Steen
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 275 (naxosdirect.com) 

The title of this disc refers to a series of associations in the areas of harmony and instrumental colour. A key figure is prominent British composer Kenneth Hesketh (b.1968), recipient of many significant commissions and awards. A student of Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), Hesketh orchestrated that composer’s piano suite Au gré des ondes (1946) and the recording here by the Britten Sinfonia led by Netherlands conductor Jac van Steen is delightful. Among these six post-Ravelian miniatures I am particularly enchanted by the oboe solo in Improvisation, accompanied by a complex textural weave with particularly notable harp writing. The harp is also prominent in Mouvement perpétuel, where rapid flutes, piccolos, trumpets, horns and violins compete for attention.

Hesketh’s own composition Inscription-Transformation for violin and orchestra pays homage to his teacher and to his grandmother Muriel McMahon. It is a substantial work where sustained long pedal points provide direction including a suggestion of the octatonic (eight-tone) scale structure. In the foreground is an exciting solo part played cleanly and with brio by US-based virtuoso Janet Sung; it is by turn aggressive and calm, and is supplemented by instrumental scatterings and outer-space-like sonorities from the other instruments. Sung also excels with pianist Simon Callaghan in Ravel’s Tzigane and in Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra (1924-25), which is well shed of its former name “Concerto Academico” – I especially enjoyed the melodic invention of the slow movement and the irresistible closing Presto.

01 MosaiquejpgMosaïque
Ensemble Made In Canada
Independent 0 51497 14047 2 (mosaiqueproject.com)

Canada’s remarkable ethnic and scenic diversity is glowingly reflected in the stylistic diversity of the 14 pieces that constitute Mosaïque, each about four minutes long, drawing from classical, jazz, folk, pop and Indigenous idioms. The Mosaïque project was created by Ensemble Made In Canada, Western University’s superb ensemble-in-residence, comprising pianist Angela Park, violinist Elissa Lee, violist Sharon Wei and cellist Rachel Mercer. Since premiering Mosaïque in 2018, EMIC has performed the suite in every province and territory, as each province and territory is represented musically in one of the pieces.

Fourteen composers contributed to the project: David Braid, Barbara Croall, Julie Doiron, Andrew Downing, Vivian Fung, Nicolas Gilbert, Kevin Lau, Nicole Lizée, Richard Mascall, Samy Moussa, William Rowson, Darren Sigesmund, Sarah Slean and Ana Sokolović. Many of their pieces depict familiar features of Canada’s physiognomy: prairies, mountains, the icy North and lots of flowing water – rivers in Quebec, Manitoba, B.C., Yukon and Northwest Territories are referenced in six pieces. There are also echoes of Gaelic, Acadian and Métis folk music, aboriginal petroglyphs, canoe trips, a legendary Newfoundlander and Saskatoon ghosts.

Happily, all these disparate pieces fit together like tesserae, those tiny, coloured bits of stone, glass or ceramic that compose a mosaic floor, wall or ceiling. Here all the differently coloured musical bits have combined to create a vivid sonic “mosaïque” of our remarkable country, vividly performed by Ensemble Made In Canada. A truly wondrous achievement!

Listen to 'Mosaïque' Now in the Listening Room

02 TaktusMirrored Glass
Taktus Duo
Ravello Records RR8027 LP, CD and Digital (taktusduo.com)

The Taktus duo was formed in 2010 by Canadian percussionists Greg Harrison and Jonny Smith while pursuing master’s degrees at the University of Toronto. With musical influences ranging from classical to electronica, their stated mission includes making music “that crosses borders between genres…”. Their second album consists of very effective marimba duet arrangements made by the duo of key minimalist keyboard works by Canadian Ann Southam (1937-2010) and American Philip Glass (b. 1937).

Southam is represented by five pieces on Side A. The four from the piano work Glass Houses (1981, revised 2009) are constructed from short, primarily major-key tonal units. Possessing an overall lyrical quality, the composer slowly transforms melodies derived from only a few tonal chords. Inside those chords, in the evocative words of Musical Toronto, “a tone row gradually unfolds at the speed of a tulip blossom opening on a warm, sunny spring morning.” The fifth work is from Southam’s earlier and harmonically more adventurous Rivers I (revised 2004).

Side B features spirited, idiomatic Taktus arrangements of Glass’ well-known Music in Contrary Motion (1969) and pieces from Etudes (1994-2012). Throughout, the duo’s playing is both precise and nuanced, as is the quality of the accurate and warm-sounding recording. The use of processing to lengthen the decay on the percussive marimba sound is organic, never obtrusive. Harrison and Smith sensitively render the complex interplay of solo and accompanying voices with virtuoso panache in both sets.

This satisfying album promises a bright Taktus future.

Listen to 'Mirrored Glass' Now in the Listening Room

03 Shostakovich 13Shostakovich 13 “Babi Yar”
Alexey Tikhomirov; Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Male Chorus; Riccardo Muti
CSO Resound CSOR 901-1901 (naxosdirect.com)

In January of 1970 Ricardo Muti conducted the first performance in Western Europe of Shostakovich’s controversial 13th Symphony written in 1962. The orchestra in Rome was the RAI Symphony Orchestra and the soloist was bass Ruggero Raimondi. One of Italy’s most highly regarded and enlightened artistic directors succeeded in securing a microfilm of the forbidden symphony and translated the poetry into Italian. A tape of the performance was sent to the composer who liked the translation. That very tape had been presented to Muti by Shostakovich’s widow as a gift a few months before this powerful performance in Chicago, making for a real sense of occasion. Muti certainly knows the music, as many of us who have seen the video of this same live performance of this thrilling, cantata-like symphony posted on YouTube will attest. The YouTube sound, of course, pales again this CD release. The CD booklet gives an account of how and why the symphony was banned. Here is an outline.

The symphony is set to texts by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The composer was drawn to his poem Babi Yar, written in 1961, that tells of the 1941 massacre of 34,000 Jews in 36 hours on a hillside in Kiev. Shostakovich selected four other poems for a five-movement symphony. The selection was made by Shostakovich and was in no way intended by the composer to be a song cycle. Upon its first performance on December 18, 1962 the work was immediately banned with no review. For Khrushchev and the Presidium and others whose antisemitism was ubiquitous, this was an open condemnation. Yevtushenko eventually undertook to emend Babi Yar so that not only Jews were slaughtered in Kiev, and that the Russian people fought the Nazis. There was however one more performance using the unchanged text two days after the first; Kirill Kondrashin conducted it in the Conservatory and that powerful performance was recorded and is available on all formats from Praga Digitals.

Audiences today are once again hearing Yevtushenko’s original poem.

04 Weinberg FluteWeinberg – Flute Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; 12 Pieces for Flute and Orchestra; 5 Pieces for Flute and Piano
Claudia Stein; Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra; David Robert Coleman
Naxos 8.573931 (naxosdirect.com) 

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) was a Polish-Jewish pianist and composer who came of age just as Europe was plunged into the inferno of the Second World War. Moving first to Minsk to escape the Nazi occupation of Poland, he subsequently moved to Tashkent and then, with some help from Shostakovich, to Moscow where he lived for the rest of his life. The music on this recording, composed between 1947 and 1987 is a window into the musical culture, nipped in the bud by World War II, emerging in the 1930s in Eastern Europe.

The first thing that struck me about Weinberg’s music was his prodigious mastery of technique. For example, the first movement of Flute Concerto No.1 is an exciting, dramatic and technically challenging dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. The second movement, an elegiac soliloquy for the flute, is supported by a simple but profoundly expressive chord progression played by the orchestra: the two movements couldn’t be more different, but both display equal mastery.

The first of the Five Pieces for Flute and Piano, begins by quoting the opening of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, but moves on seamlessly into Weinberg’s own wonderfully original and expressive flight of melodic invention.

Flutist Claudia Stein, pianist Elisaveta Blumina and the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Robert Coleman, are equally up to the challenges of Weinberg’s music. Kudos also to Naxos for introducing us to Weinberg’s music for flute.

05 Michael ByronMichael Byron – Bridges of Pearl and Dust
Ben Phelps
Cold Bllue Music CB0057 (coldbluemusic.com) 

This CD single features Bridges of Pearl and Dust, a 16-minute four-vibraphone work by “second-generation West Coast minimalist” American composer Michael Byron. It’s dense, contrapuntal and polyrhythmic music which generously rewards repeated listening.

I first met the Los Angeles-raised Byron at Toronto’s York University around 1973. He came to study composition with American Richard Teitelbaum, as well as to teach music. Byron had already studied with maverick composer James Tenney in LA, and had formed close musical friendships with influential post-modernist, minimalist composers Harold Budd and Peter Garland. At York Byron worked closely with music professor, composer, musician and biofeedback-music pioneer David Rosenboom. Very quickly Byron became an integral member of the vibrant mid-1970s Toronto avant-garde performing arts community. Byron moved to New York City a few years later, and there too found an influential place in the downtown experimental music scene.

Byron’s compositions are marked by those varied influences, yet even his earliest works project a unique musical voice. One reviewer called itshimmering minimalism.” The four vibraphones in Bridges of Pearl and Dust (2011), all played with élan by LA percussionist Ben Phelps, combine to express a complex, harmonically shifting sound field. Challenged on the first listening, I replayed the album four times. Over time, the logic and aesthetics of Byron’s musical imagination were revealed.

Filled with rhythmically percolating, interpenetrating melodic lines, the resulting tightly interwoven texture elicits, as the composer aptly put it, “a musical experience in the present tense.” And as I found out, one which richly rewards deep listening.

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