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Boston Early Music Festival 2011 – II: Success or Excess?

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Johann Christoph Bach (`642 – 1703)
Johann Christoph Bach (`642 – 1703)

1. Frances Fitch – French claveçin music (Clérambault, Le Roux, Rameau, Jacquet de la Guerre)

2. David Hyun-su Kim – Beethoven and Schumann on the Fortepiano (Goethe House)

3. Boston Camerata (Anne Azéma, Joel Cohen) – Roman de Fauvel

4. William Porter – Leipzig Chorale Preludes

5. Jordi Savall – Irish Music

6. BEMF Orchestra (Robert Mealy) – Bach, Corelli, Handel

7. Keyboard Festival: Harpsichord Concerts

a. Peter Sykes
b. Luca Guglielmi

8. Keyboard Festival: Fortepiano concerts

a. Christoph Hammer – Beck, Clementi
b. Kristian Bezuidenhout – Mozart Sonatas

9. Michael Sponsellor, et al. – J. Chr. Bach: “Meine Freundin, du bist schön”
10. Kristian Bezuidenhout et al. – Mozart: Fantasy, Piano Quartets


Part I

The number, variety, and quality range of the BEMF musical events is so vast that it induces a kind of giddiness or vertigo over the course of the week that can be taken as either the frenzy of enthusiasm or the disorientation of overload. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Going to concerts is always a social event, and attending a series of them along with numbers of articulate, knowledgeable people (including the total stranger who might be wearing an “Earlier than Thou” T-shirt) with whom you can share information and compare responses is stimulating—at the very worst—at best highly enlightening.

“Early Music” (henceforth, EM) doesn’t really denote anything anymore; it has become a brand name or a buzz word or even a location on the Internet. (Googling “Early Music” produces almost 4.5 million hits.) The most recent work to be performed at BEMF was composed this spring (by my wife) and received its premier in the company of 16th century works of similar genre. It was far from the only 21st century work performed. The oldest music that I heard was from the early 14th century, not really all that early if you pride yourself on being “Earlier than Thou.” (The neglect of music of the 9th-13th centuries was striking.) There were several portions of 19th century music, and gobs of 16th-18th century works from the certified chronological heartland of EM. But the parochial qualities that have defined (or fenced in) EM in the past seemed to almost vanish. Orthodoxies of performance practices were replaced by spectra. It is no longer “this is how you perform…” but “these are the ways you could perform…” which might actually dip a toe (or finger) into that anathema of early musicians, “Received Romantic Practice” (as learned from your teacher, as learned from her teacher, etc).

In its renewed approach to mainstream configurations, EM now needs to be judged the way any other music is judged: on the basis of the effectiveness of the interpretive decisions of the individual artists—not in conveying the timeless essence of the music nor in demonstrating the historically correct way to perform it, but in the music’s effective manifestation as vital and plausible communication in the here and now.

That said, the Festival also served didactic functions. I got to hear all of Bach’s Leipzig Chorale Preludes (not, of course, actually written in Leipzig, but there’s that discredited romantic habit of giving misleading labels to pieces so that they will stick in your brain; cf. the “French” or “English” Suites).  I can’t remember hearing live performances of every single one in the past, and hearing them all in one double-length sitting was both spiritually exhilarating and physically taxing; but now at least I know for sure that I’ve heard them all live. The impression of the music was heavily colored by the character of the Fowkes & Co. tracker organ of First Lutheran Church with its vivid, characterful, and well-balanced wind and brass stops. Given the differences among organs, each performance of these pieces is bound to be fresh. William Porter’s magisterial interpretations were “authoritative” as they say, which I think means that he really knows the music and inhabits each moment of it fully, but also that there is a little bit of impersonality that may be the occupational hazard of the combination of “organ,” “Bach,” “masterpiece,” and “invisible performer.” These same qualities can be indicated as well by the word “impressive,” but really, there was also a lot to love about these performances because they acknowledged what is so amazing about the music: its unfailing grandeur of vision.

Hearing and seeing the Roman de Fauvel (or a coherent group of selections thereof) was an object lesson in how to move a remarkable piece of fourteenth-century cultural expression from the written page onto the theater stage, where it was never intended to appear, but without which most of us non-specialists would remain benighted. The witty English translation of the prose narratives was spoken with pitch-perfect disdain by Joel Cohen, who clearly demonstrated the full contemporary relevance of the text denouncing every form of public posturing and hypocrisy. The format included large projections of the Roman’s illuminations behind the performers, who sometimes stood and delivered concert fashion, but who also moved around each other, assuming the personae being described in both words and music. Unlike the CD that the Boston Camerata made sixteen years ago, the musical selections were expanded to include improvisations (Shira Kamen’s vielle work seemed to be channelling the impulses of a demonically possessed 14th-century jongleur) as well as polyphonic motets, many of which were not “authentically” located within the manuscript but which absolutely belonged in this theatrical blast from the past. Michael Collver’s vocal and gestural evocation of the equine protagonist was in the tradition of Zero Mostel in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Anne Azéma and Michael Barrett contributed significantly to the successful presentation with impeccable performance and resourceful theatricality. As the chronologically earliest music (ca. 1410) on the Festival’s official program, one would have expected a full, enthusiastic audience in Jordan Hall; strangely, it was only about half-full. It seems that even in the world of EM, some things can seem too esoteric. [That was Stanley Cup night!—Ed.]

The Keyboard Festival harpsichordists Peter Sykes and Luca Guglielmi who performed on Friday morning made a valuable didactic decision: to focus on transcriptions for harpsichord from other media by Bach and Handel. Thus we got to hear J. S. Bach’s famous but rarely heard version of Jan Adam Reinken’s “Hortus Musicus” Trio Sonata, mentioned in the textbooks as the product of Bach’s reverence for the masters of earlier generations. Reinken, whom Bach heard in Hamburg in 1703, was born in 1623 and was therefore a living relic from the generation of Bach’s grandfather. Fortunately it was also a wonderful and quirky piece that was fun to listen to in Peter Sykes’ rendition, ever alive to all the quirks. Guglielmi offered Bach’s version of the (Alessandro) Marcello Oboe Concerto for solo harpsichord, with an illuminating slow tempo for the middle movement. Since the oboe sustains superbly and the harpsichord not at all, you would expect the transcription of have a faster tempo, but the reverse was true here, to powerful effect. It may have been the focus on transcriptions that vividly brought out the performers’ diverse harpsichord personalities: Sykes’s playing was calm, flowing, allowing the affect of each piece to emerge quietly but surely without any overlay of rhetorical intensity. Guglielmi’s was equally straightforward, but brought a lighter, aerated touch that gave the rhythms a bit more spring and pop.

Didactic purposes were served by repertory that was both obscure and (overly) familiar. In the case of the former, Christoph Hammer made a case for Franz Ignaz Beck, along with Muzio Clementi. By pouring himself heart and soul into Beck’s piano music, Hammer actually made the case for himself: his way of addressing the ca. 1790 Anton Walter model fortepiano could not have been more romantic if it had been an 1890 Bechstein. The music sounded beautiful because it was beautifully and resourcefully played, the value of the experience provided mostly by the performer, who lovingly pointed out every detail, drawing a vast array of colors from the instrument.

In the case of the latter (reminder: the (overly) familiar), the BEMF orchestra’s rendition of Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite under the unrelenting undulations of Robert Mealy was an exercise in attempted defamiliarization, primarily through the medium of tempo. Once again attention was redirected from the music to the performers, this time to the detriment of the listeners’ experience: the rapidity of the tempos left one marvelling at the ability of the players (a good 25 strong) to keep up and stay together, especially considering how limited the rehearsal time must have been and how busy they all were with playing a four-plus hour opera every other night (among other things). The audience members I spoke to were divided between enthusing about how thrilling it all was and being dismayed that it had gone by so fast that the music seemed to vanish before it could register.

Other works on the program fared variously: the opening “Symphonia” by Bach was indeed thrilling to hear, and was taken at a reasonable speed, a work unfamiliar to most owing to its being part of the rarely heard Cantata 42. I was ecstatic to finally get to hear a live performance of the Handel concerto (op. 3 no. 2), one of my favorites, rarely programmed. The Largo cantilena was exquisitely sung by oboe soloist Gonzalo Ruiz with a plangent and eloquent sonority full of intonational subtleties; no tempo problems here. But in the movement in gavotte rhythm with two variations, speed returned, obscuring the lovely details of the divisions (running eighths in the bass, murmuring triplets in the violins) and making them sound merely like a smudged version of the original. For me, the most valuable aspect of the concert was the performance of the Corelli Concerto Grosso Op.6 No. 4 on “early” strings. These incredible works are usually victims of performers’ unsuccessful attempts to find the right “sound.” As a youngster, I was captivated by a recording by the Società Corelli, an Italian group that sounded (then) bright, clear, preternaturally transparent, shot through with Italian sunlight. Hearing that recording more recently, I was shocked by how much wobbly vibrato they were actually using; it was only in comparison to other non-period recordings of the time that it stood out, but when I was fifteen, what did I know, other than that those qualities were essential for this music. My subsequent quest for the perfect Historically Informed Performance (HIP) version has been thwarted time and again. One recording tries to compensate for the lesser power of gut strings, etc. by bearing down and getting an opaque sound, another gets all the delicacy and transparency, but lacks the kind of vigor in the tuttis that rattled the spoons of Cardinal Ottoboni’s guests and sent the reputation of these works soaring out over the rest of Europe. The essence of the concerto grosso (as perfectly demonstrated in these works) is the theatrical contrast between the delicacy of one on a part and the power of many. From this springs the modern orchestral concept of a string section as much as from Lully’s “Violons du Roy.” Well, thanks to Mealy’s minions, we finally got to hear that thunderous tutti along with the delicate tracery of the solos, and it was indeed both transparent and thrilling. But then, those fast movements were still too fast.

Whether didactic or not, the thrill of discovering a previously unknown work has been the pot of gold at the end of the EM rainbow ever since Mendelssohn resurrected the St. Matthew Passion in 1829. I’m not sure how many listeners took home Franz Ignaz Beck in their hearts, but for me, the buried treasure that I will carry with me henceforth was unearthed not in the main festival, but on the fringe; in fact, it was not even part of a formal concert at all, but presented in the “Works in Progress” series of Harpsichord Clearing House, and held in their exhibition room rather than in a hall on Friday afternoon. These are informal, short, and free presentations (about a half-hour each), up close and personal matinées musicales. This particular expedition of discovery was led by the very resourceful harpsichordist Michael Sponseller with his splendid Ensemble Florilège, and the object of their quest was an amazing serenata, or secular cantata, by J. S. Bach’s most talented forbear, his uncle Johann Christoph (1642 – 1703)..

Everything that I have heard by this composer has impressed me; his sacred choral work stands just behind Schütz in distinction, but possesses its own unique character. Nothing like the present work, however, can be found in Schütz. It is entitled “Meine Freundin, du bist schön,” and must be heard to be believed. The text is a conflation of a narrative (not performed, but read by the listener) written by his cousin Johann Ambrosius Bach (J. S.’s father) describing the interactions of young lovers, with sung commentary or actual dialogue in language that quotes, paraphrases, or adapts the words of the Song of Songs, formally arranged in short sections of ariosi, solos, and ensembles which flow into each other with minimal interruption. It is both proper and sexy, restrained and sensual, emotional but balanced, and wholely lacking in excess (unlike Monteverdi, who loved to go over the top)–a totally unexpected artefact of Lutheran culture. It is scored for four solo voices, two violins, three bass viols, and harpsichord, but the most remarkable feature, musically, is that the part for the first violin is a concertante obbligato that runs like a concerto through the entire piece, as if the god Eros is given his own voice to both influence and comment on the situation. The performers (soprano Kristen Watson, mezzo Katherine Growdon, tenor Scott Mello, baritone Paul Max Tipton, plus strings) were all splendid, fresh, and spot-on in tone and ensemble, but their fearless leader aside, the prize must go to the totally convincing, spontaneous and free-flowing violin playing of Susanna Ogata. It takes a great performance to reveal the greatness of such a work, and in this case, all the ingredients were present for a peak EM experience.


Part II

Instruments themselves can offer their own thrills of discovery, and for this keyboard player, the fortepiano never fails to provide revelations, since we are still used to hearing most performances of this literature on modern pianos. Here is where the cultishness of HIP clashes with the closed-mindedness of traditional performance thinking most robustly, where simplistic approaches will not do. I have written here (Berkshire Review, Oct 5, 2009) critically about the use of modern piano and string instruments for Bach’s D minor solo harpsichord concerto—the sounds distort the relationships between solo and group. At BEMF I heard the same piece on the “right” instruments and it still didn’t sound right: the harpsichord was placed behind the strings and never emerged as a solo instrument. The soloist tinkled placidly along and had little ability to shape the time-span of the work, which felt as a result excessively long. When Kristian Bezuidenhout played another Bach harpsichord concerto (the A major) with the BEMF Orchestra, he was better positioned and played with all the rhetorical flair and extroversion one could desire, but was still overbalanced by the relatively large body of strings—they should have used one on a part. So the “right” instrument is only a starting point, and I am even willing to be convinced by a great performance on the “wrong” instrument, which is, after all, what J. S. Bach did to Reinken and Marcello. In other words, I’m holding on to my Mozart and Beethoven recordings by Clara Haskil or Andras Schiff.

But fortepianos (plural because every decade from 1770 through 1870, the design changed significantly) have a great deal to offer the literature written for them; their claim to superiority hinges on the imagination of the player and the quality of the instrument, but this claim should not be dismissed. The choice of instrument is of enormous importance, not only for “authentic” design, but also for good construction and voicing. Rod Regier, who has been making new old pianos for decades, has learned how to get a musically convincing sound from the old designs, and the recent results are instruments that are genuinely capable of throwing new light on old works. Two of his pianos were used to good effect, the afore-mentioned Anton Walter copy on which Bezuidenhout played Mozart on several occasions, and a late 1820’s type Viennese instrument that seems to have been a hybrid of Viennese pianos by Graf and Bösendörfer. Unlike some earlier modern copies that can sound either tinny or wooden, these instruments were convincing in all registers, at all dynamic levels. One forgot that they were “period” and simply enjoyed them as revelatory spokes-objects for the music, different from a modern Steinway in the wider range of colors available in the various registers, the shorter decay period of sound which renders the music more transparent, and the light, quick “speaking” of the action.

Kristian Bezuidenhout 2010. Photo Marco Borggreve.
Kristian Bezuidenhout 2010. Photo Marco Borggreve.

While Bezuidenhout took full advantage of these virtues in his Mozart playing, (in a very different style from that of his teacher, Malcolm Bilson), pianist David Hyun-su Kim seemed to vacillate between valuing the unique qualities of the 1820s piano and fighting against them. His Wednesday noon recital generated much interest and the Goethe House parlor room (ideal in size and décor for such an event) was full. His program consisted of a selection of Beethoven’s Bagatelles and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, op. 6, both late pieces of EM that are still part of standard modern piano repertory. Not as well-known, perhaps, as Schumann’s other early sets such as Papillons, Carnaval, or Fantasiestücke, the Davidsbündlertänze are nonetheless quintessential Schumann: like the Beethoven, they are whimsical and spontaneous fragments, but unlike the Beethoven, they magically fit together into a larger architecture or dramatic shape that builds to moments of great intensity (Schumann’s “Florestan” personality), floats quietly in a meditative space (“Eusebius”), or changes course whimsically as if one state must necessarily engender its opposite.  (Each dance is signed with the name of one of Schumann’s alter egos). It is tricky music to bring off—music in a state of constant transition.

One wondered what the earlier-style piano would reveal about it; since these instruments have inherently less sustain, it is easier to change direction; it is more of a sports car than a limousine. And it is also equipped with extra pedals to distinguish many shadings of quiet tone. One expects subtlety, fine shading, and lots of gradations—an instant register of every one of Schumann’s whims. David Kim is a well-schooled, highly musical pianist, and his Beethoven was beautifully played, fully utilizing the resources of the instrument to enhance the highly individualistic qualities of each short (but intense) piece. In the Schumann, with its occasional virtuoso flourishes, it began to feel that Kim was trying to get more from the instrument than it was happy to give. In the intensity of the moment, it could sound like a slightly inadequate version of a modern piano, making ungrateful sounds under stress. (The frequency of missed notes also increased in these passages.) It is true that with narrower pitch and dynamic range, it is easier to reach the extreme limits, and those can have powerful expressive value, an effect that requires great discretion. The performance was undeniably exciting and was met with enthusiasm; indeed, such playing may have motivated piano makers to continue to develop the structure of the instrument; but my minority opinion is that it was misjudged in relation to the capacities of the instrument and perhaps also to the intimate character of the room.

Programming is a challenge for every performer, early, middle or late. Recently, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times scolded the Orchestre de France for offering same-old same-old repertory in its New York concert; every program should include something to make audiences think, to cast new light on familiar works through imaginative contextualization. (And that has been said often enough in the Review as well!—Ed.) Old orthodoxies about keeping audiences happy by stressing the familiar and certifiably great no longer hold thanks to the efforts of musicians from all quarters, and especially those associated with EM. But simply adding novelties doesn’t guarantee interesting programs. Another pitfall for EM is the program that features a particular genre, period, and nationality, in which case the works can all start to sound alike, especially to ears that might be suffering concert overload. (BEMF days start with concerts at 9 am and go until well past midnight. There are often 3 or 4 running concurrently.) I recall a beautiful BEMF concert two years ago called “The Triumph of Love” by the terrific vocal ensemble Stile Antico which focussed on 16th-century Latin settings from the Song of Songs. It was all so beautiful, floating in the lush acoustics of Emmanuel Church on that warm June afternoon, that I… nodded off. I cannot tell you the differences between the Palestrina, Gombert, Lassus, or Victoria works they performed that balmy afternoon. Fortunately I was not assigned to review the concert.

One would have expected a similar problem in a Tuesday afternoon recital offered by Frances Fitch to celebrate the completion of her beautiful harpsichord which was based on a Nicolas Dumont harpsichord built in 1707. Her program consisted of clavecin music by four French composers all written close to that date. I have enjoyed Fitch’s playing in the past, so I went, but was a bit nervous about hearing a lot of early 18th century clavecin music, which can tend to sound all the same. If I were to hear some on the radio, I’m not sure I could tell whether it was D’Anglebert or Daquin, Chambonnières or Couperin. (This will undoubtedly horrify clavecinophiles.) So a program of Clérambault, Le Roux, Rameau, and Jacquet de la Guerre seemed as if it would require heightened alertness to small differences. But thanks to very canny programming choices, each composer emerged with a clearly distinct personality, enhanced by appropriate differentiations in the performances. This time I had no problem staying awake. Clérambault’s short suite was cool and classically poised while Le Roux’s two pieces were warm, sweet, and lyrical, particularly the Chaconne. Rameau (who usually stands out anyway) was muscular, rhythmically more driving, with well-profiled melodies of occasionally folksy character, requiring less than the usual quantity of ornamentation. The Jacquet de la Guerre selection was elegant and gracious, although I know that some of her works can also sound stereotypically “masculine.” It takes someone who knows this literature intimately (and loves it passionately) to assemble such a well-made program, and Frances Fitch’s performances reinforced the impression by keeping the attention focused on the music’s individuality through elegant but unostentatious playing of great refinement and subtlety.

A different kind of programming challenge was assumed by the ever-adventurous, indefatigable Jordi Savall, whose world-spanning folk-culture explorations alighted on Ireland and Scotland for this iteration. Earlier musical journeys have taken him from Spain through North Africa to Istanbul, Jerusalem, the Middle East, and as far as the Silk Road (EM-style). Savall is amazingly resourceful as a researcher, cultural impresario, talent scout, and of course as a performer. His passion and commitment to the music he encounters invariably produce impressive results, ones which are also unique in that no one else is performing much of this material, some of which he and his group virtually create themselves. His commitment to exploring Celtic music has already produced two albums (“The Celtic Viol I and II,” released in 2009 and 2010 respectively). Unlike many of his other investigations, however, the musical material in this concert was not esoteric or requiring highly imaginative reconstruction, and the performances at Jordan Hall on Thursday evening utilized the modest resources of only two superb accompanying musicians: Paul O’Dette on cittern and lute, and Shane Shanahan on bodhrán.

Much of this repertory is familiar, as there are many musicians, usually labelled “Irish or Scottish Traditional,” who play it regularly, having grown up with it or devoting themselves to its performance. Thus there are plenty of opportunities for comparison of Savall’s performances with the traditional approaches of musicians like Kenneth Burke, Martin Hayes, or Alasdair Frazer, not to speak of the Irish bar bands that play regularly at eleven locales in and around Boston alone. (Wikipedia has 54 pages for individuals in the category of “Irish fiddler.”) Jordi Savall’s performances differed in style from all of these, partly attributable to his emphasis on viol rather than fiddle music, but more owing to his own style of playing and artistic personality. The concert was basically for fans who wanted to hear him take this on, a bit like a concert of Frank Sinatra singing Beatles songs. Savall acknowledged this in his program note, saying “This particular approach is naturally complemented with my experience with Renaissance and Baroque music, resulting in a very personal interpretation, which is different from the interpretations heard in the modern, more folkloristic traditions. Because I am also very aware of the possibly huge distance between the playing of a musician who was born to this kind of music and another who has had to spend several years learning it and knows that he still has much to learn, this performance is above all a true fervent tribute to the art of transmission….” Laudable modesty, but then, what is this doing in the Early Music Festival? Does the Savall brand automatically anoint his approach as “Early Music” which is then dichotomized with “traditional?”  The mind boggles at such distinctions, but my personal reaction is that I would rather hear my friend Eric Martin (who was not “born to it” but did much of his “research” playing in Irish bars) fiddle these tunes in my living room or locally in the Berkshires than to hear Savall torture them out of his viol for his adoring fans in Jordan Hall.

If you are still reading, your patience may be reaching the breaking point, and I haven’t even gotten to either of the two operas which were the highlights of the week. The last of the ten concerts to be discussed here provided a satisfying finale to the Festival for this reviewer, but these ten only scratch the surface of what was offered between the Festival, the Fringe, and the exhibitions, of what a diligent early music attender with great physical stamina and insatiable musical appetite might have consumed. The organizers of the Festival indeed do heroic work which only seems to get more impressive with each iteration.

Mozart’s Piano Quartets are neither unusual repertory or new arrivals to performance on earlier instruments; rather, they are Certified Masterpieces. I am familiar with recordings of four such performances, and there are about 50 recorded performances of each work altogether (traditional plus HIP combined). No one would argue (I hope) with the judgement that they are among Mozart’s very best works. But I would guess that they are rarely heard in concerts together, since programming orthodoxy requires variety; the last time I played one, it was on a program with Copland and Fauré. But orthodoxy is not wisdom, and it was in fact wonderful to hear them together. Similarly to the clavecin works, the juxtaposition clearly displayed their distinctive qualities, the alert, brilliant performances helping to point up the unique character of each work, despite their shared medium and quasi-concerto aspect.

Since the last BEMF (2009), I find that Bezuidenhout has tempered his native facility and brilliance with thoughtfulness and greater differentiation of phrases, ideas, colors, and moods. He was matched by members of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, especially violinist Petra Müllejans who seemed incapable of playing a note that was less than perfect in tone, balance, or expression. She was the ideal chamber partner, playing in relation to the textural requirements of each moment. Violist Gottfried von der Goltz was also impeccable, if a bit less noticeable; his sister Kristin on cello, however, was a bit too noticeable, both visually and musically. Her playing, replete with choreographic additions, reminded several listeners of Jacqueline du Pré, with whom she indeed shared a teacher; but that credential was not a positive one for Mozart’s chamber music. The excessive enthusiasm applied to the cello part created minor imbalances, but did not mar the overall sense of common purpose. The use of earlier instruments makes a substantial difference in these works: the modern piano always has to be careful to avoid overwhelming its string partners, but the period piano’s much more delicate sound places its music inside the envelope created by the strings and caution needs to be exercised in the opposite direction: the strings must make sure the piano is not swamped. The energy and brilliance of Bezuidenhout’s playing guaranteed that every significant detail would clearly register, and the results were articulate, eloquent, lucid, and passionate—Early Music at its best, that is to say, music at its best.

1 thought on “Boston Early Music Festival 2011 – II: Success or Excess?

  1. What an insightful essay. I did not manage to attend all the same concerts, but I feel so lucky to have heard most of the Johann Christoph piece in the Harpsichord Clearing House room. You have expressed beautifully all that I also felt about that performance.

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