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Haydn: Die Schöpfung
Haydn: Die Schöpfung
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Refined Follow-Up to an Excellent Die Jahreszeiten, December 26, 2015
This review is from: Haydn: Die Schöpfung (Audio CD)
Herreweghe has come to explore the vocal works of Haydn rather late in his career, and yet his interpretation of Haydn's The Seasons (Die Jahreszeiten) was so elegant that one would believe the conductor to be a lifelong advocate of Haydn's large vocal works -- an interpretation that is so comfortable and natural, that one unfamiliar with Herreweghe's long and illustrious career would think him a modern Antal Dorati. I had high hopes for his follow up recording of Haydn's magnificent oratorio, The Creation (Die Schöpfung), and this recording has exceeded my expectations.

Though much of Herreweghe's career has been so focused on the Baroque (the cantatas of Bach) with the occasional foray into the Classical and Romantic, this exploration of Haydn's late classical work which so effectively looks forward to the Romantic era, yet continues the grand oratorio tradition of the Baroque, is one of Herreweghe's crowning achievements. It is refined, but not too well mannered. His Collegium Vocale Gent and Orchestre des Champs Elysees may have a reputation for a restrained sound -- at times too smooth around the edges. Yet Herreweghe's late career has presented a kind of vitality and vigor that gets the blood pulsing (compare his first and second recordings of Bach's Magnificat, and you will find a new excitement in the latter effort). The music of The Creation benefits from balance between Herreweghe's old lyricism which fits the elegant melodies of Haydn's music, and the crispness of Herreweghe's newer stuff.

Such a balance is so necessary to this monumental work: the creation of light ("und es ward Licht") is explosive and brilliant, the separation of the waters from the land is whirling, tempestuous example of Sturm und Drang, and the famous recitative of bass feature a surprisingly illustrative Orchestre des Champs Elysees. Herreweghe employs the German version of the libretto, and makes a wise choice of utilizing native German speakers of this work, and this is perhaps the best recording in the original language (McCreesh has my vote as the best recording of the English version).

The work is deceptive in its simplicity because it truly does demand much of the orchestra, chorus, and singers. Happily, Christina Landshamer and Maximilian Schmitt reappear from their initial appearance in The Seasons. Landshamer's silkly soprano fits Haydn's elegant lines perfectly, which makes her a standout in this particular recording. As a masterpiece of choral music, this work demands dramatic shifts in dynamics and the ability to sing complex counterpoint with counterpoint and clarity with large, multi-voice-per-part forces. While we think of the Collegium Vocale Gent as experts in the restrained sacred work of Bach, they are equally comfortable in the works of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. This recording of The Creation showcases the limits the chorus's true potential: from the pianissimo description of primordial chaos, to the fortissimo first appearance of the rays of light, to the brilliant fugal writing in Stimmt an die Saiten, Herreweghe's troupe sounds within its element.

The subject matter, which is based on antiquated, 17th century Miltonian material and pre-Darwinian creation mythology, is nonetheless given a gorgeous and natural porto-Romantic treatment by Herreweghe and his talented team. There are bits of improvised flourishes from the fortepiano continuo which remind one of the recordings of Rene Jacobs, enough to give the recording a distinctly 18th century flavor. The orchestra features a more rounded sound, albeit with a strong timpani and brass section and full, deep-sounding cello and contrabass, which acoustically places this oratorio at the bridge between the Classical and Romantic. It is a sound that's rivaled only by the English recording by Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort for DG. The duet between Adam and Eve in third part is perhaps the finest on record and exudes Romantic sentiment that one easily forgets the Biblical underpinnings of the subject matter, and more about human's appreciation of the foregoing descriptions of the natural world.

A good classical musical library must have an excellent rendition of The Seasons to sit alongside choice recordings of the St Matthew Passion, Mozart's Requiem, Mass in B Minor, Messiah, the Ninth Symphony, and other mainstays of choral writing. This recording by Herreweghe would be my recommendation, along with that of McCreesh for those preferring the English translation.

Mozart: The Weber Sisters
Mozart: The Weber Sisters
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly Sung and Thoughtfully Compiled; Not Your Usual Recital Album, November 14, 2015
Who needs another Mozart recital album?

When Raphael Pichon and his Ensemble Pygmalion set out to on a journey away from the Baroque and into the Classical era with a partnership with the remarkable young soprano Sabine Devieilhe, they arrived at this enlightening concept: a recital album that tells a narrative -- chapters from Mozart's complex relationships with the Weber Sisters, a fitting follow-up to Devieilhe's delightful concept/recital album dedicated to French composer Jean Philippe Rameau. Coming from a musical family, the Weber girls were Mozart's muses, forming relationships with the composer that resulted in a fruitful musical output that gives us insight not only into the vocal abilities of the sisters, but also into Mozart's affections and emotional responses to his affairs, heartbreak, unrequited love, and marriage. This is a sampling of a body of work that spans from Mozart's adolescence to the last weeks of his life.

This album is a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. Ensemble Pygmalion, led by the charismatic young conductor Raphael Pichon, plays the overture to "Les petits riens" to introduce us to Mozart's sound world. This ballet is a work from Mozart's youth, written for his journeys to France. This oft-neglected piece is given a shimmering treatment, and is well-suited to this French ensemble's character.

The next track, while not by Mozart, is an adaptation of the French song, "Ah, nous diaries-je maman," which is known mostly today by Mozart's famous variations. But it's not the variations we here, but Sabine Devieilhe's charming rendition, accompanied by pianoforte and then layered with each verse with the players from Ensemble Pygmalion in classical style.

Many of these arias are fairly familiar concert pieces that are the bread and butter of a soprano's recital repertoire. Sabine Devieilhe, not yet 30 years old, is a rare talent who has achieved a maturity of voice and artistic interpretation that rivals sopranos who have been in the business for decades longer. The devilishly difficult "Popoli di Tessaglia" with its two high-G's is rather a right of passage -- the G6 in this aria is regarded as the highest note written for the human voice -- implies that its dedicatee Aloysia Weber was quite a talent. Devieilhe virtuosity reminds me of Natalie Dessay, and for a while, Dessay's interpretation of this show piece has been my favorite. But Devieilhe's recording is also something special, and one that I will return to almost as often as I return to Dessay's. I would recommend this record even it were only for Devieilhe's flawless G6.

Devieilhe impresses with the Queen of the Night's second aria, with its four demanding high F's. It is also a role that speaks volumes of the dramatic talents of Josepha Weber, but it's an aria that has been recorded almost to death. Devieilhe, however, graces the aria with expert dynamic shifts that sound effortless, but speak to the technical abilities of this young singer. What breath control she already has with the ability to flawlessly execute the fourth high F pianissimo! Raphael Pichon refers to the research by Belgian conductor Rene Jacobs, who reintroduced the "e" vowel into Mozart's coloratura, which is more difficult to sing than the modern habit of using the "a" vowel. The lends a more otherworldly color, pushing the limits of the human voice to highlight the almost supernatural character of the Night's Queen. This is one of only two recordings I know that reflects this subtle yet significant finding: the other being the complete recording of Die Zauberflöte by Rene Jacobs. Devieilhe far surpasses the efforts of Anna-Kriistina Kaapola here (though Kaapola's efforts are very good in their own right).

The recording also includes Beyer's completion of the aria "Schon lacht der holde Frühling," meant as Mozart's contribution to the German version of Paisiello's opera, the Barber of Seville (part of the Figaro trilogy of plays, the second of which Mozart adapted into the opera, Le Nozze di Figaro). The piece demands a singer who can portray a wide range of emotion: the soprano must at once be a dazzling, buffo coloratura shepherdess, and then suddenly a lovelorn dramatic donna abbandonata of opera seria. Devieilhe does not shy away from the wide emotional reach of this piece which, although left incomplete, gives us a glimpse into Mozart's dramatic skill and admiration of whatever Weber sister was the aria's dedicatee.

When reading Mozart's letters about his wife Constanze, one gets the impression that after his fruitless attempts to court the elder sister, Aloysia, that he rather settled on the "other" sister. She was describes as fair but not beautiful, but virtuous enough to be a good wife and mother. While these may seem lackluster descriptions of his wife, and lukewarm in comparison to his communications of the older sister, Mozart's other letters describe the middle sister as the "victim" of the family, and therefore perhaps the most kindhearted and even the "best" of the girls. The music that was probably written for Constanze also evinces Constanze's talent. We don't know of any concert arias dedicated specifically for her, but we know that she was an accomplished musician who matched her husband's love of musical technique, like counterpoint. We can only theorize that the dazzling soprano parts in the Mass in C Minor were dedicated to Constanze, having been written contemporaneously with their marriage. Pichon makes the interesting choice to record the Solfeggio in F major, upon which the Christe Eleison from the Mass is based. We have the charming, first take of this famous melody, originally meant as a vocal exercise, given a mesmerizing treatment by Devieilhe, as an introduction to the "Et incarnatus est."

That aria, unfortunately, was left unfinished, witch orchestration left for a later hand. What Mozart did write, however, was roughly 10 minutes of heavenly music, the deceptively difficult soprano line interwoven in the complex tapestry of woodwinds to form a kind of mini concerto that looks forward to "Martern aller Arten" in the Abduction from the Seraglio. Interestingly, the Mass meant to commemorate his marriage, was left unfinished, and some may posit that it was due to the death of Mozart and Constanze's first son. The Mass represents Mozart's transition to maturity, personally and musically: a move from his native city of Salzburg to Vienna, the musical capital of Europe, rifts forming between Mozart and his father and sister, as well as the introduction of complex and Baroque-inspired counterpoint. Devieilhe sings the extended concertante cadenza to show-stopping effect. While the work is celebratory overall, there is a hint of sadness and longing to it. Each of the young musicians involved in this present recording play this popular work with sensitivity.

There are several surprises on this record, including a certain hidden track that offers a smart yet scatalogical spin on Mozart's relationships with the Weber sisters (I hope that is enough of a hint of the surprise). Further, this record is a treasure trove that juxtaposes Mozart's lesser known works with the better known, including an interlude from Mozart's music for the play Thamos, King of Egypt, which looks forward to Die Zauberflöte in its character and subject matter.

This is not just another collection of arias from a talented soprano, but a thoughtfully considered programme that gives us an insight into some of the most complex personal relationships in music.

Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For Mozart's Mature Operas, Jacobs Saves his Best for Last, October 21, 2015
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Rene Jacobs finishes off his acclaimed project of recording Mozart's mature operas with the singspiel, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and it sounds as though he has saved his best for last. Like Jacobs's Cosi and Figaro, this Entführung is perhaps one of the best on record, surpassing even Gardiner's 1993 recording.

Continuing in the same manner of Jacobs's recording of Mozart's other (and more famous) major singspiel Die Zauberflöte, Jacobs reinstates almost all of the original dialogue. Listeners will be rewarded by the surprisingly modern humor and wit that is too often omitted from performances today. We know that Mozart conducted these two singspiels from the fortepiano, yet modern performances and recordings rarely employ this feature. We also know that Mozart and his contemporaries improvised preludes from the fortepiano during performances as a way to set the mood or to cue the singers to the appropriate key -- a practice which Jacobs reconstructs to an exhilarating and colorful effect. The listener will find the dialogues as pleasing to the ear as the music. The fortepianist here often chooses to base these preludes on authentic Mozart material written for solo piano; hear, for example, the use of a piece of Mozart's Fantasia in C minor to introduce Belmonte's Act III aria.

The liner notes explain the prevalence of the melodrama in Vienna during these years. Mozart, in fact, wrote such melodramas for the stage, both based on "exotic" Eastern subjects: incidental music from the play Thamos, König in Aegypten (later reworked into an East Indian setting for the play Lanassa), and another incomplete "rescue" opera-singspiel also set in a Turkish seraglio. That singspiel, Zaide, of which only the music from the first two acts survives, and based on a play by Voltaire, featured melodramas, or spoken text over music (astute listeners will also hear musical quotations from Zaide in Die Entführung.). Jacobs notes that Die Entführung leaves room for such melodramas, as the surviving material calls for spoken dialogue to interrupt the music at three points. This recording finds even more opportunity to melodrama at appropriate points in the music, providing for a more integrative, "theatrical", and coherent Die Enführung than we are used to hearing. Melodrama also allows us to hear a convincing way to deal with the inordinately long instrumental prelude to the famous aria "Martern aller Arten" -- a feature of the music that has plagued stage directors for generations.

Those who found the spectacle of Jacobs's Die Zauberflöte to be rather jarring, will find his Die Entführung to take fewer liberties. Nonetheless, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin plays with liveliness and crispness, exploiting the dynamic range of their period instruments. Jacobs uses this illustrious orchestra to bring out the colors of this opera -- Mozart's first theatrical success in Vienna -- as if to wipe away centuries of dust to reveal a vibrant oil painting underneath. A westernized interpretation of Turkish Janissary music was very much in vogue in Vienna at the time, which gave rise to kind of sub-genre in 18th century classical music that includes this opera, works by Haydn and even Beethoven's 9th Symphony. A prominent feature of this Turkish style of music was the "oriental" percussion and winds (or at least the imitation of such instrumentation; think the Rondo alla Turca, KV 331.3). The listener may notice a "new" piece of music included within Act I: Jacobs makes use of a Turkish March by Michael Haydn (MH 601), probably written for a performance of this very opera in 1795, to introduce the Act I chorus of the Janissaries, replacing the dubious march that often appears on record.

As for the voices, the standout is Dimitry Ivashchenko, who's Osmin is absolutely unforgettable. The character is but an 18th century caricature of a piece of Eastern culture, but however flawed and Eurocentric the role, Ivashchenko brings out the humor in Osmin. His booming bass is perfectly comfortable in the extremely low range required of the role, which makes one hope for his Sarastro or Commendatore one day.

Some may be see Robin Johanssen's as a relatively light Konstanze, but as the liner notes state, the soprano who created the role, Catherina Cavalieri, was not a dramatic soprano. The role calls for a more lyric treatment, and Johanssen's lighter voice highlights the coloratura in "Martern aller Arten" well. Mari Eriksmoen is charming, devilish Blonde with a commanding range. "Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir" demands extreme low and high notes from both singers involved, and Eriksmoen executes this number flawlessly. Together with Ivashchenko, the comic Act II duet is pure Mozartian magic. Maximillian Schmitt is a passionate and aristocratic Belmonte. Julian Pregardien's Pedrillo is much more than a supporting tenor singing a stock character. Like Eriksmoen, he sings his mostly comic role with sensitivity. His "ladder" serenade in Act III "In Mohrenland gefangen war" comes in the midst of a comic scene, though there is an air of longing there.

The quartet that forms the Act II finale is a ravishing look forward to the extended Act II finale of Figaro: the music is dramatic yet largely inwardly focused on the feelings of the characters. Jacobs brings out the best in these singers and instrumentalists here as he did with Figaro several years ago. Indeed, this track is probably one of the best out of Rene Jacobs's entire Mozart opera series.

Jacobs rightly rounded off his Mozart opera series with a "bang", and this is very possibly a new gold standard for Die Entführung aus dem Serail. It will definitely be my go-to recording of Mozart's first Viennese hit. I do hope that Jacobs decides to continue with more operas from Mozart's youth (perhaps a Mitridate, Lucio Silla, or Sogno di Scipione). For now, this Die Entführung is a grand finale to Jacobs's Mozart project.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 28, 2016 9:39 AM PST

Bach: Magnificat in E-Flat Major, BWV 243a & Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63
Bach: Magnificat in E-Flat Major, BWV 243a & Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63
Price: $8.99

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterfully Played Bach in Illuminating Context, October 3, 2015
Today we're accustomed to think of Bach's choral works as stand-alone pieces meant for a concert hall or studio recording, rather than pieces written for a particular occasion and meant to be a part of a religious service. These were not necessarily pieces written for posterity; one might imagine transporting Bach to the present day and -- to his disbelief -- learning that we still listen to his music today and are probably more familiar with the sound of his music than his contemporaries. His music is on-demand, but out of context.

Beginning with Dunedin Consort's St John Passion, John Butt has taken historically-informed practice an extra step farther by putting Bach's works back into context by reconstructing the liturgies to which these pieces belonged. This should not be off-putting; the religious service that is reconstructed here is lively and colorful, more of a cultural treasure than a didactic, fire-and-brimstone ordeal (this coming from a non-religious listener).

We know the pieces that were played during Bach's first Christmas in Leipzig, and John Butt and Dunedin Consort have put together a well-researched and impeccably played program to reconstruct that sound.

As for the artistry, John Butt uses one- to two-voice-per part which lends a clarity to Bach's complex music that is missing from larger ensembles. We know that churches of Bach's day were built for acoustics; in an age before electrically amplified sound, North German Protestant churches must have been large enough to accommodate a substantial segment of the cities they served, while being constructed in a manner that allowed a preacher's voice to travel. The acoustics of the recording truly resonate in a way that compliments the voices, such that a larger chorus is not needed.

When Bach intended multiple voices to sing in a part ("ripienists"), he so indicated on the manuscript. The Christmas cantata No. 63 is one of those rare cantatas where Bach specifically called for a these ripienists. Such forces were utilized for special events: Christmas and the election of the Town Council. John Butt doubles voices here but keeps the forces in keeping with what we know about the forces Bach had in Leipzig. This is not entirely inaccurate, as Andrew Parrott points out in his book "The Essential Bach Choir" that such ripienists were optional and depended on the forces available. We can deduce from the historical record that when Bach originally wrote the cantata before he arrived in Leipzig, he had larger forces available, and upon Bach's arrival in Leipzig, the vocal and instrumental forces available to him were severely lacking in number.

John Butt chooses the early version of the Magnificat, into which German and Latin "laudes" are interspersed to make the piece more Christmas-specific. Thought it has been recorded a handful of times, it is more common to hear the later version. This is a shame, because the early version contains some of Bach's most charming choral music. The one-voice-per-part treatment adds an extra layer of expressivity to this joyful piece.

The voices, which don't always amaze while singing solo in the arias, blend beautifully. The smaller vocal ensemble is a perfect balance with the orchestra; neither group overpowers the other.

John Butt, himself an accomplished organist, joins in on the performance with a selection of relevant Bach preludes. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this recording is the congregational singing. It is a stirring recreation, similar to those found in the recordings of the Mass for Christmas Morning and Epiphany Mass by Paul McCreesh, as wells a John Butt's own recording of the St John Passion. With the improvised ritornelli for the organ in the congregational chorales (which we know was part of Bach's performance practice), we can get somewhat closer to Bach's sound world and hear his music in a context more similar to what his contemporaries heard.

This is top-rate artistry on a well-researched program that will be appreciated by casual listeners and students of Bach's music alike. I'm eager to hear the Dunedin Consort's Christmas Oratorio when it is released.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 8, 2015 6:00 PM PST

Grand Romantic
Grand Romantic
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much-Hyped Grand Romantic Delivers, June 16, 2015
This review is from: Grand Romantic (Audio CD)
Following the announcement of the hiatus of the band Fun, the band’s frontman has release his much-hyped debut solo record, and it delivers.

First, the departure of Jack Antonoff to create the band Bleachers gave us an opportunity to hear his own creative talents. The product was an album called Strange Desire, and while an outstanding effort, it had a 1980s-tinged sound that was very different from the instantly recognizable, anthemic Queen-esque melodies of Fun. Now, it’s Nate’s turn to show off his project, Grand Romantic, which proves to many listeners that Nate Ruess was likely at the creative songwriting core of Fun.

It has been many years since the Fun.’s breakout record, Some Nights. In many respects, Grand Romantic is a fitting follow-up. Nate himself characterizes the first full track “Ah-Ha” as a counterpart to the title track of Some Nights: it is a multi-section, through-composed song of varying colors. While not as attention-grabbing as Some Nights, “Ah-Ha” has its own merits. Nate’s songwriting ability is on full display with its stark contrasts and skillful sampling of former work.

It seems that many of the songs were written for a third Fun. album which never came to fruition. The standout track is “Harsh Light”, which was actually premiered in 2014 on the Tonight Show, while Fun. was still very much together. (Hopefully, history doesn’t repeat itself; some of us may recall that Nate’s former band, The Format, premiered the song “Benson Hedges” before breaking up. “Benson Hedges” then became one of the first songs recorded by Fun. for their debut album, Aim and Ignite.) Harsh Light shows Nate’s talent for chorus-writing. If you’re yearning for a new “We Are Young”, this song is it. It’s a grand song that takes its time with tempo, with a gorgeous melody that shows influences of Queen. This is the most effective selection from Grand Romantic.

Another standout track is “What is the World Coming To”, featuring Beck. This is an astounding meeting of the minds here. Nate’s high tenor and Beck’s baritone blend surprisingly well in octaves for this duet.

“Great Big Storm” delivers a distinctive punch. Nate makes a judicious songwriting decision to begin the song with a selection from its explosive chorus. Again, this is another track that harkens back to Some Nights.

Those who have been fans of Fun. since Aim and Ignite will be particularly rewarded: while a good half of the record is an apt follow-up to Some Nights, the other half sounds very much like Nate’s follow-up to Aim and Ignite’s centerpiece track, “The Gambler.” Nate uses a more intimate instrumentation for the central trio of songs for Grand Romantic: “Moment”, “It Only Gets Much Worse”, and the title track. These three tracks play as if they were one long song in three parts. The climax of these is in “It Only Gets Much Worse”. This track starts in Nate’s distinctive highest register.

“Take It Back” is probably the weakest link in Grand Romantic. One might find it monotonous, and the instrumentation unimaginative. One might also wonder what Andrew Dost and Jack Antonoff might have contributed to this track. However, this is such a minor thing, as the rest of the album lives up its grand title.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 21, 2015 12:46 PM PDT

J.S. Bach: Matthäuspassion, BWV 244
J.S. Bach: Matthäuspassion, BWV 244
Price: $27.99

5.0 out of 5 stars An Artistic Milestone for Rudolf Lutz and the Bachstiftung, May 16, 2015
While this record doesn't quite live up to the finesse of more well-known renditions of the St. Matthew Passions like Herreweghe or Gardiner, this release by Rudolf Lutz and the choir and orchestra of J.S. Bach-stiftung is full of vitality and one to which I will return often.

The market has seen a welcome influx of new St. Matthew Passions over the past year, each one presenting a vastly different sound than the next. In this present recording, Lutz immediately grabs the listener's attention in the opening chorus, Lutz takes the opening relatively briskly, clocking in at about 6:15 (usually, a full performance of the opening chorus is about 7 to 8 minutes). It is by no means the fastest, but somehow Lutz avoids making this number seem too dancelike or vulgar. Rather, a faster tempo serves to highlight the melodic texture, which is often lost in the harmonies in slower renditions.

Charles Daniels is the Evangelist here, and Peter Harvey is cast as the voice of Jesus. Both soloists also sang these roles in the very recent, and highly recommended, recording of the early version of the St. Matthew Passion with the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists. Both are also veterans in these roles, and it shows here. Daniels' narration, just like in the Yorkshire recording, is light-sounding and straightforward -- appropriate for ecclesiastical music of the late Baroque. It is also effective in the use of dramatic pause and dynamics. While the St. Matthew Passion is very much a sacred piece, Bach's mastery and application of operatic conventions are highlighted by Daniels' efforts in yet another recording of the St. Matthew Passion. Harvey's baritone is strong and evokes the pathos of the role when appropriate. His voice is never too heavy nor affectatious. We revere certain musicians for being *the* masters at certain challenging pieces, such that many listeners will hold these performers' names synonymous with those pieces -- Alfred Deller and the songs of Deller, Casals and the Cello Suites of Bach, Fischer-Dieskau and the lieder of Schubert, etc. For me, Daniels and Harvey display expertise in their respective roles in the St. Matthew Passion.

Joanne Lunn is a soprano of growing prominence and rightly so. She has worked with Gardiner, Minkowski, Suzuki, and other experts in Bach's music and this is a stellar addition to her growing repertoire. Her duet with the strong mezzo Margot Oitzinger (So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen) is moving. It is a growing trend, it seems, for this number to sound like a dueling sopranos at the opera - rife with affectation and vibrato. Here, Oitzinger and Lunn sing this plaintive duet as a humble lament, letting the dissonances in Bach's music speak for themselves in an honest way devoid of self-consciousness.

Wolf Matthias Friedrich is also particularly strong, yet his Mache dich mein Herze Rein leave a bit to be desired. It is not poorly sung by any means, but his application of vibrato rather than clean lines can make the aria seem anemic at times. One is left wishing that Friedrich would allow the music to speak for itself. For me, this aria is the true climax of the entire St. Matthew Passion, with its graceful melody and signature dissonances. This is where the vocals fall short.

The choir choir and orchestra play with expert clarity. However, in the quickened opening chorus, one might wish for more precision, especially in the dialogue between the ensembles. Further, one might also wish for a more prominent O Lamm Gottes unschuldig to pull the number together. Toward the end of Part I, Sind Blitze sind Donner is a dramatic climax. This fugue is supported by a interesting improvisation by the harpsichord giving it a rhythmic quality that highlights the basso continuo voices often obscured in most other recordings. The turba choruses sound full, and are never rushed. Lutz rather treats these bits of choral writing with full respect -- one gets the idea that the conductor leads each turba like a mini-motet, an opportunity, albeit a small one, to sample Bach's skill at choral writing. They are not something simply to be rushed through.

One curiosity is the harpsichord improvisation between verses of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. We do know that Bach, much to the dismay of his employers, had a habit of injecting a bit of improvisational flair on the organ during chorales in church services, and Lutz's choice to include such improvisation here is a tempting look into what could have been.

In all, this recording may not match up to the gold-standard recordings of the St. Matthew Passion, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable piece and is highly recommended.

J.S. Bach: St. Matthew Passion
J.S. Bach: St. Matthew Passion
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Vibrant yet Flawed Reading of the Early Version, April 14, 2015
Recent years have given us new recordings of the Great Passion, and each seems to have something quite new to say about the old favorite. Conductors seem eager to put their own individual stamp on it, from varying the size or balance of the choruses (Jos van Veldhoven), to using sound engineering to recreate the unique sound-space that Bach knew (Rene Jacobs), to scaling down the ensembles to the most basic forces to match the practical limitations in Bach’s day (John Butt). Ever since the music published Bärenreiter published the early version of the St. Matthew Passion, there was been growing curiosity about what the work originally sounded like.

The orchestration is less ornamented, and more direct. There is no “ripieno” soprano to sing “O Lamm Gottes” in the opening choir, the cantus firmus being assigned instead to the organ and woodwinds. Melodies have been revised. Voices have been reassigned. Viola da Gambas are gone, and lutes take their places. Even the entire chorale fantasia “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” (in reality, this was the opening number to the 1725 St. John Passion) is absent. Richard Egarr’s liner notes emphasize that in Bach’s day, there was no true concept a “finished” piece. Each performance might see revisions based on the limitations or forces available for the occasion. Hence, the early version, recorded here, is largely forgotten, while a combination of the later versions is commonly heard today.

There are two back-to-back new recordings of the early version, the one by Yorkshire Bach Ensemble and this present recording by AAM and Richard Egarr. Each has their own virtues, but the Yorkshire recording is more effective.

First the most noticeable issue: the tempi. Richard Egarr is clear that he encouraged his ensemble to be liberal with the use of tempo changes. This makes sense for the most part. The early version included some tempo markings absent in later manuscripts, which suggests that Bach was not a stranger to sudden tempo changes in the middle of movements (for example, the tenor recitative with chorale, “O schmertz, wie zittert das gequälte Herz”). However, some of Egarr’s own tempo choices are effective while some are not. The rubato in the first alto aria are well-chosen and add a layer of pathos to the music. But others are less effective. The most glaring of these is in the opening chorus, which so often sets the tone for the rest of a recording of the St. Matthew Passion. Egarr chooses to speed things up at the middle section, “Seht – Wohin?” When the movement alternates between thematic material later on in the movement, it sounds stilted and forced.

Richard Egarr scales down his choir, though I would have hoped for him to go a little further and use the one-voice-per-part approach that he uses for his interpretations of Bach’s instrumental music. In the opening number, the original version lacks the ripieno soprano section to sing the “O Lamm Gottes” chorale, and instead these lines are given to the winds and organ. But because Egarr utilizes a more than one voice to a part, this chorale line gets lost in the complex eight-part double chorus. The Yorkshire recording utilizes the one-voice-per-part approach (though for some reason, retaining the third set of sopranos) and is more effective and much clearer because of it. True, Egarr’s chorus is very small compared to other recordings (two to three singers per part) but for this early version, small changes can make a big difference. Performing Bach with one-voice-per-part is controversial, and some listeners have strong views for or against this practice, but for the original version of the St. Matthew Passion in particular, one-voice-per-part is almost essential to ensuring each line is properly heard.

The Yorkshire recording is much more intimate. The configuration of the surviving score of the early version -- existing only as a posthumous copy -- suggests that minimal forces were used. Egarr’s recording presents a more dramatic interpretation that seems more appropriate for the concert hall than a 17th century Good Friday church service. That said, Egarr leads the AAM in a crisp, interesting, and at times exciting rendition. While Yorkshire’s is more reverent, AAM’s is an exquisite theater for the mind.

James Gilchrist as Evangelist gives an exceptional reading of the text that surpasses the Evangelist in the Yorkshire recording. Matthew Rose’s recitatives are largely well-done, yet can sometimes seem excessive in dramatic effect. Sarah Connolly is another standout soloist here, a strong mezzo-soprano who sings the alto roles with passion and sensitivity. With Ashley Riches, the duet “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen” is a superb listening experience. The chorus of the AAM executes its interjections and following fugue “Sind Blitze, sind Donner” with precise attack.

I could wish for a more measured approach to the turba choruses, which seem rushed, especially toward the end. To my ears, there is nothing less dramatic with a crowd chorus that takes its time, especially when the music is so contrapuntally rich. Yorkshire achieves this without rushing through the music.

Recordings of the early version are hard to come by. Those that are readily available are the Yorkshire, AAM, and one older recording by Georg Christoph Biller and the St Thomas Choir. Others exist, but are rather rare. As for the two most recent, Yorkshire and AAM, both have their virtues and faults. I will return to both of them depending. If you lean toward a St. Matthew Passion that is more reflective and introspective, go with Yorkshire. If you prefer it to sound like gripping Baroque drama, go with Egarr. For me, Yorkshire’s scaled down, quieter approach sounds more authentic, though there are truly aspects of the AAM recording that make it truly special, including the top-rate cast and superb playing from one of the greatest period-instrument ensembles in the world.

Recommended, with some reservations. If the early version piques your interest, be sure to look into the Yorkshire recording as well.

Strategies & Tactics for the MBE, Fifth Edition (Emanuel Bar Review)
Strategies & Tactics for the MBE, Fifth Edition (Emanuel Bar Review)
by Kimm Alayne Walton
Edition: Paperback
Price: $64.35
132 used & new from $27.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best MBE Study Guide Around, but Look Elsewhere for Civ Pro Practice, January 29, 2015
The MBEs seem to be getting progressively more difficult, and an applicant who has practiced with NCBE released materials may notice that the NCBE is delving more and more into minutiae of law. With bar pass rates at an all-time low (see July 2014), the Strategies and Tactics are almost a must-have supplement to the standard bar prep program.

First the not-so-great: NCBE, we all know, is adding Civ Pro to the February 2015 exam, and of course the Strategies and Tactics have no released NCBE material for this subject. New printings of the book come with a card that gives the buyer access to Emanuel's simulated FRCP questions. Keep in mind these are simulated, and I found these questions not as well-crafted as the actual MBE questions. Comparing these 50 simulated questions to the mere 10 questions actually sampled by NCBE shows that the MBE questions are much clearer. There is definitely a noticeable stylistic difference that doesn't make me feel confident in the Emanuel's simulated Civ Pro materials. I've relied on my Themis California materials for Civ Pro, which I've found to be much more stylistically similar to the 10 released sample questions.

Now the good. The tips at the beginning of each chapter are practical and much clearer than anything else I've seen. The Strategies and Tactics also zero-in on those tricky, often-overlooked subtopics that trip applicants up on the real thing (e.g., title insurance in Real Property disputes). On the whole, it seems like these questions are well-selected to give the student a realistic idea of the breadth of testable issues.

The book doesn't only inform you why answers are right or wrong, but gives guidance on how the questions, calls, and choices are constructed, as to help you identify patterns in how the NCBE tests. The book also highlights common traps and "distractors" that help increase your speed and make the inevitable situation where the applicant must "guess" much more informed.

I got the Strategies and Tactics for the MBE2 (the blue book) as well, but only as a supplement to the topics for which I needed extra help. I found the format of book 2 to be odd, placing the correct answers and explanations on the same page as the questions themselves, making it difficult to actually practice. Your best bet is to treat the Strategies and Tactics (red book) as your bible.

Bach: St Matthew Passion, Passion Unseres Herrn Jesu Christi Nach Dem Evangelisten Matthäus, BWV 244b (Early Version)
Bach: St Matthew Passion, Passion Unseres Herrn Jesu Christi Nach Dem Evangelisten Matthäus, BWV 244b (Early Version)
Price: $15.98

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Rare, Elegant Look at the Genesis of Bach's Great Passion, January 7, 2015
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The Yorkshire Baroque Soloists give us a rare look into the genesis of what is perhaps Bach's greatest achievement, The St Matthew Passion. The St Matthew Passion we are used to hearing today is more like blending together of elements of Bach's later alterations from the mid-1730s to 1740s. But the history of this extends to 1727 and perhaps even before. We have here what is perhaps Bach's initial vision of this musical monument: one that is decidedly of a smaller scale, more intimate. The only copy we have of this earlier version is by one of Bach's proteges, likely made shortly after Bach's death. This recording should interest not only those musicologists or academics engaged in the study of Bach's compositional process; rather it is a gorgeous recording that should interest any Bach lover looking for a fresh perspective. To date, I know of only a few recordings of this early version, including one by the Thomanerchor Leipzig, Each of these recordings is hard to come by. Even the Complete Bach Edition by Teldec, released in 2000 and containing the famous cantata set of Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, omits this early version.

Some differences are readily noticeable, others more subtle:
-Despite there being two choruses and orchestras, they share one continuo group. For version we're used to hearing, Bach gave each orchestra its own independent continuo group.
-Gone is the chorale setting of "O Mensch, bewein den Sünde groß," replaced instead with the simple setting of "Jesum, laß ich nicht von mir" to conclude the first part.
-A bass, rather than an alto takes the aria, "Ach, wo ist mein Jesus hin?"
-There are numerous changes to ornamentation and appogiaturas, explained in depth in the recording's liner notes.
-The aria "Komm, süßes Kreuz" is accompanied by a lute rather than a viola da gamba.

The standard performing edition uses Bach's beautiful manuscript, containing detailed performing instructions: ornaments, slurs, etc. But the copy of the early version is almost completely devoid of these instructions. The Yorkshire Baroque Ensemble employs judicious historically informed performing standards to give us listeners a convincing experience of what the St Matthew Passion may have sounded like in the 1720s. For a baroque composer in Bach's employment position, burdened by small-ish ensembles of unpredictable quality, few resources, and little time, it was common to leave such ornamentation and performing details to the players upon rehearsal. While the later versions of the St Matthew Passion have given us a rather "standardized" view of the work, the sparser score of the early version, perhaps counterintuitively, allows for a much different, seemingly improvised, and overall fresher experience. Be ready to experience this old work as if you were listening to it for the first time.

One will notice at the outset that the forces are much smaller than usual (if you do not count the one-voice-per part Passions by Dunedin Consort, Paul McCreesh, or Sigiswald Kuijken). The reverberation in the recording venue allows a gorgeous resonances for the ensemble. With such small forces, reverberation is almost necessary to allow for blending of voices. Yet, the experience is an intimate one. While the absence of ornaments allows freer improvisation here and there, the early version is overall more straightforward than the standard one. The notes explain that it was likely that Bach employed minimal orchestral forces, an effect which is recreated here. Devotees of Klemperer should be aware: here we have a St Matthew Passion that is focused on narrative rather than sheer volume.

Many of the chorales are scaled back, with voices accompanied only by the organ rather than full orchestra. Indeed, the early version indicates no colla parte accompaniment for the chorales. While one might infer that colla parte accompaniment from the full orchestra would simply be assumed in practice, Yorkshire Baroque takes advantage of an opportunity to explore the alternative. The effect is an absolutely gorgeous, intimate experience.

One of the most inspiring moments is the "Komm, Süßes Kreuz." Bach was certainly right the first time to utilize a lute here. One might expect that for later performances, it was nonetheless difficult to hear the lute in the spacious St Thomas Church, necessitating the replacement of the lute for the viola da gamba we hear today. Here, however, Yorkshire explores the original orchestration, beautifully accompanied by the harpsichord with a "lute stop" for added effect.

Charles Daniels is an excellent Evangelist -- straightforward and no-nonsense, though some might wish for more legato phrasing in the recitative. I, however, found his performance appropriate given the somber subject matter.

Peter Harvey is an experienced Bach performer and no stranger to the role of Christ. On record, this is perhaps his most convincing rendition.

While I'm somewhat familiar with Daniels and very familiar with Harvey, this is the first I've heard of soprano Bethany Seymour. She sings her arias in a very baroque style: without much vibrato. But her tone is silky and powerful. It is easy for performers to perform oft-recorded works like the St Matthew Passion as if on autopilot. Bethany Seymour, however, sounds committed to the text.

Another familiar name is Matthew Brook. His "Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder" is lively, and the violinist assigned the obligato handles the part flawlessly. One interesting aspect of the early version is that the two arias featuring violin obligatos (the other being the famous "Erbarme dich") call upon a solo violinist from the opposite orchestra -- for example, "Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder," which is assigned to the bass and instrumentalists from orchestra II nonetheless calls upon the solo violinist from orchestra I. Not only does this suggest that Bach had only minimal forces as to require such a configuration, but it creates a more prominent violin to balance the vocal part than we might otherwise hear in the standard version.

I could wish for more balance between the choirs in the opening number, though this is a very minor criticism. The balance between the choirs in the rest of the recording is excellent, and one can truly appreciate the structure of the St Matthew Passion as being within Bach's dialogue-cantata tradition.

I would have left out the soprano ripeno from the opening number, however. A look at the score of the early version indicates the chorale "O Lamm Gottes unschuldig" was played only by the organ and supported by woodwinds, rather than a group of sopranos. The liner notes acknowledge this aspect of the score, but nonetheless employs the soprano ripienists. This does little to detract from the gorgeous rendition of this masterpiece of musical architecture, however.

Peter Seymour takes his tempos moderately, and for that I am thankful. It has become a habit of HIP conductors to take tempos a bit too briskly (see McCreesh). Seymour, by contrast, allows the music to breathe without sounding ponderous. He keeps the drama moving, but allows Bach's lines to shine through when needed. I feel that for a small ensemble, more moderate tempi should be the norm: many baroque string instruments, especially, are susceptible to a "scratchy" quality when played quickly (attributable in part to limitations of the construction of baroque bows), which could make for a cacophony when joined by others in ensemble against the echo of the recording venue (for example, hear the turba choruses is McCreesh's St Matthew Passion for Deutsche Gramophon). Seymour instead accounts for the qualities by taking his time, allowing the bowed instruments to achieve that sigh-like rounded quality whenever possible.

Overall, the listener can hear the efforts of every player and singer; the recording is still a grand one -- the early version is every bit as worthy of the title of "Great Passion" along with its newer, more frequently heard version -- yet there is an intimacy here that makes this recording truly special.

Highly recommended.

Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626
Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626
Price: $8.99

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Compelling Performance of an Interesting New Edition, January 6, 2015
Despite being one of Mozart’s most enduring works, the Requiem is perhaps the most frustrating. What the master left was but a skeleton of the work – he left a virtually complete Introitus and the vocal lines of the Kyrie. But for the heart of the piece, the Sequenz, he left only a skeleton: basso continuo and vocal parts, with a motif for other instruments here and there. Mozart’s manuscript for the Sequenz ends at bar 8 of the Lacrymosa. The Offertory was left in a similar fragmentary state. The Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei are not authentic Mozart at all (though they may be based on Mozart’s sketches).

The controversy has been stirring since 1792 over the competency of Franz Xaver Süßmayr, the first composer to finish the Requiem. Compositional errors abound – errors that Mozart himself wouldn’t have made. There are enough errors to fill musicological journal articles or entire books. In fairness, Süßmayr provided Mozart’s widow a performable edition in order to fulfill a commission contract, but to many musicians and students of composition, Süßmayr's edition amounted merely to coloring within the lines – a completion without the inventiveness or ornament that we adore from Mozart.

The fact remains, even though his version is the most widely performed today, he was not the first choice to complete the Requiem. That honor belonged to another of Mozart’s protégés, Josef Eybler. Even a fleeting look at Eybler’s and Süßmayr’s surviving output reveal that Eybler was objectively the more able composer, that his style was more heavily influenced by Mozart (hear, for example, his Christmas Oratorio, or the offertory Omnes Saba Venient -- flashes of Mozart's influence can be clearly heard). Eybler’s pen shows the independence of invention that Mozart encouraged but Süßmayr lacked. Sadly, Eybler did not finish his edition of the Requiem. For reasons unknown, Süßmayr did not incorporate Eybler's efforts. Fortunately for us, however, what remains of Eybler’s orchestration has been preserved.

It is this Eybler orchestration that forms the basis of Masaato Suzuki’s new edition. While not perfect, Suzuki's effort is splendid. As someone who has personally been involved in preparing an edition of the Requiem, I can attest that such a project is a monumental task –whether it be a minor correcting of Süßmayr’s mere compositional errors (e.g. editions by Breyer or Floutuis), or a major edition including a fully-fleshed out Amen fugue or newly-composed Lacrymosa (Druce, Maunder, Levin, Cohrs). One must obey laws of counterpoint to which Mozart held fast, and attempt to stay within the spirit of Mozart’s aesthetic. Suzuki was right to use Eybler’s effort as a framework. Suzuki has earned his place alongside Robert Levin (who uses Süßmayr’s effort as a baseline) in terms of providing Mozart devotees with a convincing, though imperfect, edition.

There are number of interesting touches that will surprise listeners in a good way (I, for one, was delighted by these alterations, keeping in mind that all of Mozart’s original orchestrations are intact). One striking example is the chorus’ exclamations in the Rex Tremendae; gone are the trumpets and timpani from that number, similar to the treatment in the H.C. Robbin’s Landon edition and consistent with Eybler. This makes for an effective contrast between the homophonic “Rex tremendae majestatis!” supported by trombones and winds, and the florid, dotted string figures that follow. This decision was the right one.

Also, Suzuki does what many editors are feeling more emboldened to do lately: a full realization of the Amen fugue the Mozart meant to finish off the Sequenz. Süßmayr neglected to provide an Amen fugue, thereby destroying the overall structure of the work (ending each broad section with a fugue). A full realization didn’t come to fruition until the 20th century, and perhaps the strongest realization to-date is by Robert Levin, with its tight counterpoint, appropriate brevity, and climactic aesthetic (Maunder’s was uninspired, Druce’s too long and loose with counterpoint). Suzuki’s fails to unseat Levin, but his effort is a close second. I am enamored with Suzuki’s inclusion of an independent bass figure during the exposition of themes. While at first this seemed more appropriate to Bach, I became more convinced with subsequent listens: it harkened back to the duet of the Two Soldiers in Die Zauberflöte, written only months before the Requiem. I hope the public may hear the Cohrs completion on record soon. Until then, Levin and Suzuki reign in this department.

On the other hand, Masaato Suzuki includes some orchestrations that seem unlikely, for example, the colla parte trombones in the Recordare. It was tradition extending from the Baroque to Classical eras in church music to bolster voices with brass instruments merely doubling the voices. By Mozart's time, it was more common to hear brass doubling voices in tutti-choral numbers, rather than solo voices. Further, the inclusion of trumpets and timpani (in D/A) in the Quam olim Abrahae are also unlikely, as these instruments would be given extremely limited utility in the key of G-minor.

He leaves the Lacrymosa virtually unchanged, including the "plagal cadence" that famously concludes the number, merely replacing the word "Amen" with "Requiem." Perhaps this was to appease audiences who wished for a more familiar experience. This choice, however, contravenes Mozart's practice of using a half-cadence to precede a fugue (think of the end of the Introit before the Kyrie, the end of the Hostias before the Quam olim Abrahae, etc.)

I also find that the overall orchestration of the Recordare was a bit too muddled in the strings, or that there might be a more convincing way to orchestrate the trumpets and timpani in the Dies Irae, but overall, I find this to be one of the stronger editions to-date. There has been a proliferation recently of new editions of the Requiem. In particular, I hope the lovely and well-researched Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs edition will see a recording soon, as his edition has received well-reviewed concert performances lately.

But as to the performance itself, Masaaki Suzuki (father of the editor) surprises us in the best possible way. He is by all means an expert in Bach, and what he and his Bach Collegium Japan (BCJ) do best translates so well to Mozart’s Requiem. The Requiem is heavily influenced by the work of Bach and Handel: one can hear the contrapuntal style of the Baroque shining through Mozart’s fragmentary score. It perhaps really shouldn’t be all that surprising that Suzuki and BCJ knack for clarity of vocal line would translate from their complete Bach cantata cycle to Mozart’s Requiem (and the Solemn Vespers of the Confessor, also presented here).

This is not a wooden Baroque-sounding Requiem, however, but a real Sturm und Drang reading worthy of Viennese high classical to which Mozart belonged. The Kyrie fugue is forward trusting and turbulent: Masaato Suzuki reworks the trumpets and timpani here for a convincing and utterly exciting experience with a decidedly more Mozartian flavor, similar to the prominent trumpets and timpani in the finale to the Gloria in the C-Minor mass. Those who are iffy about Baroque-specialty ensembles dabbling in Viennese classics need not worry: Suzuki conducts familiar numbers like the Dies Irae in a manner consistent with what one might expect from the composer of Don Giovanni.

As for the singing, there is not one weak link. Of particular note is Carolyn Sampson’s soprano, whose Te Decet soars above plaintive violins in the Introit. Christian Immler is a resonant, full sounding bass, introducing the Tuba Mirum with elegant confidence. The singers blend well without sounding uninspired. The Recordare, perhaps the most operatic number in the Requiem, is tastefully done to be recognizable as a church piece, but emotionally charged enough to be recognizable as by the same hand as Figaro or Zaüberflote. Masaaki Suzuki, BCJ, and the singers give us a Viennese high classic of top caliber.

The acoustics are well-chosen and the recording itself is exceptionally well engineered. There is an appropriate but not overbearing resonance in the recording venue that truly exploits the small-ish size of the choir and orchestra and the meticulous vocal lines that Mozart (and Eybler and Suzuki) wrote for them.

Also included in this volume is a wonderful rendition of the Solemn Vespers of the Confessor. This is one recording where the listener won't simply skip to the famous Laudate Dominum. BCJ sings vitality, and Suzuki brings out the charm of the Salzburg-era Mozart who was, at the time, flowering into compositional maturity. BCJ's expertise in Bach is apparent in the Laudate Pueri, and of course, the Laudate Dominum sung by Carolyn Sampson is likely to become standard for many listeners.

For anyone intrigued by the mystery of the Requiem, any musicologist eager to hear what someone else has to say on a new edition, or any devotee of Mozart’s music generally: This is a highly recommended recording of Suzuki’s very welcome exploration of Mozart.

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