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Hyperion Records

CDA67711/2 - Tchaikovsky: Piano Concertos
CDA67711/2
Recording details: Various dates
Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Andrés Villalta
Release date: April 2010
Total duration: 140 minutes 40 seconds

THE SUNDAY TIMES CLASSICAL CD OF THE WEEK
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH CLASSICAL CD OF THE WEEK
GRAMOPHONE RECOMMENDS

'Hough plays with a brilliance that conveys delicacy of feelign as well as virtuosity and power' (The Mail on Sunday)

'The electrifying pace Hough injects into the codas of No 1 and the Concert Fantasia are suitably exciting, though these are nothing compared to the tumultuous final pages of No 2 (a tremendous performance). The audience whoops in amazement … this is a great recording—no doubt about that—and one which, if there is any justice, will garner any number of awards' (Gramophone)

'Anyone who heard Stephen Hough's barnstorming performances of all the Tchaikovsky piano concertos at last year's Proms will want to own these CDs … Osmo Vänskä's suave direction of the Minnesota players allows Hough's brilliance to shine through' (The Observer)

'[Concerto no 1] is injected with exhilharation, the bravura tempered with limpid lyricism … this set is a worthy tribute to the longevity of Hyperion's series' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Stephen Hough's account of the First Piano Concerto, dazzling as it may be, is only one of the highlights in this exceptional collection of all of Tchaikovsky's works for piano and orchestra … Hough's ability to strip off the layers of varnish from a work so that it recaptures much of its startling freshness is remarkable, and his combination of bravura swagger and the most fastidious care with line and texture is utterly convincing' (The Guardian)

'Stephen Hough, without rival in bringing new life to popular repertoire with a romantic sweep … with Hough at the keys, the First Concerto becomes no warhorse taken for a dutiful trot but a freshly imagined masterpiece bouncing with surprises and invention. Beyond Hough's crystalline clarity, dash and power, Vänskä displays complete mastery of the music's architecture, engineering tension particularly well in the finale's hurly burly … but it's the set's lesser pieces that offer the most revelations … the Second Concerto flourishes as never before' (The Times)

'Brilliantly played but thoughtfully reconsidered interpretations … he achieves the remarkable feat of not making the B flat major concerto sound remotely hackneyed. Sparks fly thanks to his outstanding conductor … he makes the strongest possible case for the restoration of the neglected and often reviled G major concerto (No 2)' (The Sunday Times)

'No mere warhorse anymore, the concerto here rises in integrity while Hough time and time again reminds us that this is his carefully considered take on the score… Vänskä is a fine accompanist. A musician who himself revels in rethinking scores, it is as if Hough has met his dream soul mate… the fire comes from Hough's determination; his conductor sticks with him all the way… the audience's enthusiastic reaction says it all… a fitting 50th volume celebration to a series of major importance' (Fanfare, USA)

'Hough has virtuosity to burn and shows it on his recording of the three concertos and Concert Fantasia. But he is also an artist of uncommon sensitivity and taste. Moreover, his recording has the advantage of offering the uncut Second Concerto plus, on supplemental tracks, the seriously cut version of the second movement by Alexander Siloti and his own uncut, but modified, version of the same movement' (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, USA)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Piano Concertos
CD1
CD2
Allegro brillante  [19'07]
Andante non troppo  [13'27]
Andante non troppo  [13'55]

The Romantic Piano Concerto series reaches Volume 50. This series has been described as a jewel in Hyperion’s crown and one of the glories of the recording industry. Rarely in the history of recorded music has such a rich seam of undiscovered delights been mined to such consistently dazzling effect. These first fifty volumes include 131 works for piano and orchestra: fifty-nine of these works are premiere recordings and many other featured works have only been recorded once before. The performers include some of the greatest pianists, orchestras and conductors in the world, and each disc in itself is a miracle of virtuosity, scholarship and musicianship.

For Volume 50, a stellar cast has been assembled for a two-disc set that includes, unusually, one of the most famous concertos in the repertoire. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 has certainly achieved warhorse status—but in the expert hands of Stephen Hough it is a new creature. With the rest of this fascinating two-disc set we are in more usual RPC territory, with music which is actually not widely known. This is a complete survey of Tchaikovsky’s music for piano and orchestra and includes alternative versions of the second movement of Piano Concerto No 2 as well as some delicious extras.

Stephen Hough performed all four concertos at the BBC Proms in 2009 and was described as ‘the epitome of a “golden age” virtuoso with his balletic elegance and dazzling rhythmic reflexes’ (The Independent). Armed with this inestimably important experience, he travelled to Minnesota to record the set live with the Minnesota Orchestra under their acclaimed conductor Osmo Vänskä. The result is a set of unique importance: a winning combination of a pianist at the zenith of his artistry, a world-class orchestra and director, a pre-eminent producer and engineer, repertoire both familiar and unknown, and packaged with even more than the usual care that customers have come to expect from Hyperion.


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Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos face in two directions: we find symphonic complexity and seriousness of purpose, but also the entertainment value of pianistic fireworks. The music of the Third Concerto began life as a symphony before Tchaikovsky decided to recast it, and the resulting work is more austere than its companions. The Second Concerto and the Fantasia instead fall at the popular end of the scale. Only the First Concerto, justly the most famous, attempts to merge popular appeal and symphonic intricacy, with great success. Unlike most composers of piano concertos, Tchaikovsky was not himself a concert pianist, and therefore had to forge relationships with the virtuosi who would premiere his concertos. On the one hand, he well understood how important the performer would be in ensuring that the work was welcomed by the public, and he often sought their approval and advice accordingly. On the other, he baulked at the idea that a performer could make changes to his finished scores. Ultimately, his preferred performer was the young pianist and composer Sergei Taneyev, who was a fine advocate for the works on the concert platform but also respected Tchaikovsky’s decisions as composer.

Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor Op 23 (1875)
Tchaikovsky knew his first piano concerto to be one of the finest pieces he had written to date, and so the hostile reaction of his mentor Nikolai Rubinstein was all the more unnerving for him. Rubinstein sat through a private demonstration in silence, but when asked for his opinion, he mocked it ruthlessly, playing grotesque parodies of various passages while declaring all but two or three pages to be unplayable. Finally noticing the distress he was causing Tchaikovsky, he softened his position and offered to premiere the concerto, subject to substantial revision. Tchaikovsky would have none of it: ‘I won’t change a single note’, he replied. Later, however, he became more amenable to suggestions from the concerto’s performers, and made a few alterations to the piano part, including the famous opening chords, which he made much more imposing. The premiere was given by Hans von Bülow in Boston, and the Russian premiere by Taneyev. In the end, even Rubinstein was won round, and performed it several times.

Deservedly one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular works, this concerto succeeds on every level: the great virtuosity of the piano part is matched by the colourful orchestration, while formal intricacy coexists with a succession of inspired melodies. The first movement begins with a majestic introduction in D flat major, a deceptive move, since the tonal centre of the concerto is actually B flat. This beautiful dithyrambic theme disappears from the scene enigmatically, never to be heard again, although one of its motifs can be found in a lyrical theme at the beginning of the second movement, in D flat, while the ‘apotheosis’ second theme of the finale (again in D flat), is cut from the same cloth. This, indeed, is a characteristic of the work: Tchaikovsky here eschews obvious unifying devices, preferring intricate thematic transformations and subtle correspondences between the movements.

The approach to the Allegro features fleet figures with a strong rhythmic profile that eventually reveal themselves to be an anticipation of the main Allegro theme itself. Tchaikovsky derived the theme from a popular Ukrainian song traditionally performed by wandering hurdy-gurdy players, although he leaves the character of the original far behind. This is another characteristic of the work: various figurations and passagework either flow into the main melodies or flow from them. A similar theme will appear in the finale, but with a different accentuation pattern—the concerto transforms various motifs in this way.

A more virtuosic passage leads into the Allegro’s lyrical second subject. Although different in character to the first theme, this is also based on a syncopated descending figure. Its plaintive appeals, in the woodwind and piano, receive a reassuring response in a new theme, given to the strings. The ascending scale figures of this new string theme again feature shifting and unpredictable accents. The plaintive theme returns again, now flourishing in a new texture, and at this point we might well imagine that the sonata exposition has come to a close, but a new dramatic turn prompts an outburst from the piano that ends in C minor. Only then does the ‘reassurance’ theme round off the exposition in A flat major.

As we enter the development section, the same theme now sounds a note of anxiety, and becomes the main impetus behind dramatic, brooding sequences, that seem to be building towards a climax. But instead the piano stages a diversion with a triumphant torrent of octaves that leads into a brief cadenza, one of several piano monologues with heightened rhetoric. Here the piano presents us with a version of the ‘plaintive’ theme, now well disguised with syncopated triplet figuration. Another approach to a climax, now led by the piano, culminates in an expansive and cathartic new theme in the very remote key of E major, built on a remarkably simple scale figure (its four-note descent mirroring the ascents heard earlier). This provides the development with its final stretch before the recapitulation emerges almost imperceptibly, the original anticipatory figures now replaced with faster passagework. The course of the recapitulation is complicated by a lengthy and symphonic piano cadenza that serves as a second development section, beginning with solemn chords in G flat major, reminding us of the heroic character of the piano at the opening of the movement. A great climax is dissipated eventually as tinkling bell-like figuration leads to the return of the orchestra for the coda.

The second movement is simpler, but wrought with equal care. The main theme is a nobly lyrical ‘aria’ containing reminiscences of the first movement’s prologue. Figures harking back to the Allegro’s first theme plunge us into a scherzo-like passage, which foreshadows the catchy French popular melody that appears in the middle section. Here we find another four-note ascent, together with ambiguous accentuation thanks to a mixture of duple and triple patterns.

The main theme of the finale features another objet trouvé in the shape of a Ukrainian spring song, but Tchaikovsky chose it carefully, since it contains a descending four-note motif that connects it to several other themes of the concerto in addition to the syncopation that has marked earlier passages. The finale’s rondo form is modified, allowing the second subject to expand into a closing apotheosis that evokes the grandeur of the concerto’s opening pages.

Piano Concerto No 2 in G major Op 44 (1880)
Even when there were no deadlines looming, Tchaikovsky forced himself to maintain a constant flow of compositions, and even became anxious and depressed when there was no work in progress. One such moment came in the summer of 1879, and to improve his mood, Tchaikovsky began work on his second piano concerto. While his efforts fell short of the level of inspiration evident in his first concerto, No 2 is undeniably attractive, and elaborate in design. Nikolai Rubinstein was once again the chosen performer for the premiere, and Tchaikovsky was understandably anxious about how the pianist would receive the new work. He sent the draft score to Taneyev, asking if he thought anything needed changing in the piano-writing. Taneyev assured him that all was well, and the score was passed on to Rubinstein. Rubinstein was not hostile this time, but he still had reservations: the piano part was not prominent enough and the tendency towards dialogue with the orchestra made the part too ‘episodic’. In the event, his sudden death in 1881 removed him from the scene, and Taneyev became the soloist for the concerto’s premiere in 1882. The critics found the work overlong, and Tchaikovsky jokingly reprimanded Taneyev for not correcting that in time. Feeling nevertheless that there might be some truth in the judgement, he decided some cuts should be made, first taking on the task himself, then entrusting it to the pianist Alexander Siloti. On the return of the score, Tchaikovsky thought that Siloti’s editing was too damaging to the concerto’s structure, particularly in the second movement. The composer strongly objected: ‘I will definitely not allow the cadenza to be changed; it would have to be composed anew. The cadenza somehow suggested itself just at this point and in order to place it elsewhere I should have to rearrange the whole work completely.’ But the composer died before he was able to oversee the new edition of the concerto to the end, and the publisher, Jurgenson, simply issued Siloti’s version as if it were authorized, calculating, no doubt, that the pianist was the shrewder judge of public taste. The whole affair was quite typical of nineteenth-century performers’ attitudes to the concertos they played; the score was merely considered to be the composer’s version, and not holy writ, not least because many pianists composed and improvised, unlike most of their present-day counterparts. For the present recording, Tchaikovsky’s original version is performed—Siloti’s cut version of the second movement can be heard on CD 2 track 5.

The first movement is substantial and elaborately wrought, although its content is sometimes criticized for being derivative. We can indeed hear Schumann through the themes and their development, Liszt in the passagework, and even Weber in the auspicious beginning of the coda (which seems to be modelled on the equivalent moment in the Freischütz overture). The imposing theme at the opening is a Schumannesque march for a few bars, but it quickly takes on a more Russian character through touches of modal harmony. The foil to this theme is more soloistic, but lyrical and anxious, and this in turn leads to the first brief cadenza for the piano—the several cadenzas in this concerto come and go quite spontaneously. This cadenza ends on an insistent repetition of a dominant-seventh chord, as if demanding a reprise of the main theme, but the expected cadence is ‘interrupted’, and instead we arrive at the second theme, in the colourful key of E flat major. This melody, and its setting for clarinet, may be reminiscent of Agatha’s theme in Freischütz, but it also belongs to a species of Tchaikovsky theme: based on a simple descending scale, these themes begin on the third degree as if written for an operatic soprano or a tenor (such themes proliferate in Eugene Onegin). This theme is emotionally charged and tends to veer towards the minor, undermining the otherwise bright mood. Escaping from these shadows, the theme reaches its apotheosis in the key of C major (an unexpected move within the framework of a sonata exposition). Descending slowly from this climactic passage, Tchaikovsky begins the development section, which is framed by two cadenzas (the second is the largest cadenza of the movement and highly virtuosic). The ensuing recapitulation serves to restore tonal balance after the colourful key shifts of the exposition, and the movement ends on a note of brilliance.

In the second movement, Tchaikovsky moves towards the triple-concerto genre, offering us a luxuriant solo-violin ‘aria’; a little later, a solo cello joins in to create a duet. The piano finally enters with the same theme recast in the manner of a Chopin nocturne. The music becomes progressively more nervous, leading up to a precarious climax whose energy is dissipated in a double cadenza for the string soloists. In the reprise, the three soloists now join forces to play the theme together, as a chamber-music piano trio, with the pianist providing accompaniment figures. Although the piano part contains a few more flourishes before and during the mysterious coda, piano soloists may feel a degree of consternation at the limited role they play in this movement, the most lyrically attractive of the concerto.

In the finale, by way of compensation, the pianist is granted a great display of virtuosity in torrents of octaves and other passagework figures. The movement bounces along on Schumannesque rhythms, albeit in a lighter style than Schumann would have allowed himself, with sunny hints of Mediterranean popular song shining through. This is unashamed and unpretentious entertainment music, and highly enjoyable.

Concert Fantasia in G major Op 56 (1884)
The Concert Fantasia, popular during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime, fell out of the repertoire and has languished in relative obscurity. It was inspired by the playing of Eugen d’Albert, a Glasgow-born pianist then in his twenties who was causing waves of excitement throughout Europe (he later moved to Germany and switched to composition, writing several successful operas as well as two piano concertos of his own). Liszt thought of him as the next Tausig, while Tchaikovsky felt he was a successor to the Rubinstein brothers. Tchaikovsky initially planned to write a regular concerto, but soon hit on the idea of merging the slow movement with the finale, resulting in a two-movement work. The chosen title of ‘Fantasia’ left Tchaikovsky free to experiment in other ways. The first theme eschews the weight normally given to a sonata-form first subject, and instead proceeds as a dance à la russe, with the light and sparkling quality of many a Tchaikovsky finale. The second theme provides a lyrical contrast as normal, but the development section takes the form of a huge piano cadenza, with the burden of the symphonic argument entrusted to the pianists’ two hands. This is not the first time we have seen Tchaikovsky allocating substantial passages of development to the soloist alone, but here this idea is taken to an extreme. Eventually, when we have almost forgotten about the orchestra, the movement resumes as if nothing had happened.

The second movement is even more determinedly odd, and Tchaikovsky felt it needed the title ‘Contrastes’, as a signal to the public that the normal rules were in abeyance. It begins as a standard slow movement, with a beautiful Italianate theme, perhaps a gondolier’s song. But the song is interrupted by fast dance music with a tambourine beat in the background, forming the first of the advertised contrasts, in tempo, metre and key. The song returns, and then the dance once again, in almost cinematic cuts, prompting us to imagine some kind of carnival scene. This striking design and the abundance of virtuosity might have fitted well with d’Albert’s showmanship, but Tchaikovsky’s chosen pianist was once again unavailable to premiere the piece and the trusty Taneyev successfully filled the breach.

Piano Concerto No 3 in E flat major Op 75 (1893)
Tchaikovsky’s final concerto arose from a symphonic draft, in this case, the rejected first movement, dating back to 1889, for what was to become his famous ‘Pathétique’ Symphony. He wanted to write a symphony that would cover human life and death, and the planned work began with a heroic Allegro which, in his own words, represented ‘impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity’. The symphony was to end with a slow and quiet portrayal of death. If we imagine, for a moment, a symphony beginning with the heroic movement that became the third piano concerto and ending with the finale of the ‘Pathétique’, Tchaikovsky’s problem becomes apparent—the emotional distance seems too great for the confines of even a large symphonic work. It was therefore rejected, not because of any intrinsic demerits, but because it failed to fit the desired symphonic scheme. Still, the entire first movement had been completed through to the scoring, and Tchaikovsky was reluctant to waste it, so he converted it into a piano concerto with minimal disturbance to the original version. The work’s odd genesis can be seen as positive or negative depending on what is expected of a piano concerto: on the one hand, it is a serious piece on a symphonic scale, with thematic material that is of much more noble lineage than anything in the second piano concerto or the Fantasia; on the other hand, pianists have considered the work less attractive because it lacks a virtuosic piano part. The piano part, indeed, is integrated into the symphonic texture much more than in most other concertos (although Rachmaninov’s second comes close to it), but Tchaikovsky attempts to compensate for this with a lengthy cadenza. The concerto begins with an unusual theme given to the bassoons (the other woodwind joining in later)—clearly intended to be heroic and imposing, but still subdued in its first airing. Unusually for Tchaikovsky, this beautiful theme lacks harmonic movement and sits on a tonic pedal, bringing it closer to the opening themes we often find in Glazunov’s symphonies. A contrasting middle section introduces images that are more disturbing— fantastic in the manner of The Nutcracker—but these are dismissed upon the return of the opening theme, now fully triumphant. The second, lyrical theme in the distant key of G major lifts us onto a plateau of stillness and calm, but a third theme is still to come, a lively dance à la russe, set out in a toccata-like texture, with some surprising harmonic changes and more idiomatic piano-writing. Tchaikovsky brews up some storms in the development section, but instead of leading to triumph or tragedy, they simply fade away into strains of the second, calm theme on each occasion. The task of converting the development into concerto format was made easier by splitting it into a purely orchestral section and a large piano solo section (the main cadenza). The recapitulation is given extra dynamism thanks to a new harmonization of the first theme that pulls it away from its static origins, while a brilliant coda draws the concerto to a life-affirming close.

Tchaikovsky once again sought Taneyev’s advice, and received confirmation that the main problem was the lack of virtuosity in the piano-writing. Tchaikovsky was now undecided whether to leave the concerto as it stood (he had already promised it in this form to the pianist Louis Diémer), or to expand it into a full-length concerto with the addition of two more movements (which would provide opportunities for greater pianistic display). In the end, he died without completing the sketched outlines of a planned Andante and Finale, and Taneyev edited these afterwards, publishing them under a separate opus number (Op 79). Taneyev, once again, premiered both the single-movement version, in 1895, and the three-movement version the following year.

Marina Frolova-Walker © 2010


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'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 39 – Delius & Ireland' (CDA67296)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 39 – Delius & Ireland
MP3 £5.25FLAC £5.25ALAC £5.25Buy by post £5.25 CDA67296  Please, someone, buy me …  
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 40 – Herz' (CDA67537)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 40 – Herz
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 41 – Kalkbrenner' (CDA67535)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 41 – Kalkbrenner
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 42 – Alnæs & Sinding' (CDA67555)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 42 – Alnæs & Sinding
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 43 – Bennett & Bache' (CDA67595)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 43 – Bennett & Bache
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 44 – Melcer-Szczawinski' (CDA67630)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 44 – Melcer-Szczawinski
MP3 £5.25FLAC £5.25ALAC £5.25Buy by post £5.25 CDA67630  Please, someone, buy me …  
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 45 – Hiller' (CDA67655)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 45 – Hiller
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 46 – Bowen' (CDA67659)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 46 – Bowen
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 47 – Draeseke & Jadassohn' (CDA67636)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 47 – Draeseke & Jadassohn
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 48 – Benedict & Macfarren' (CDA67720)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 48 – Benedict & Macfarren
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 49 – Stenhammar' (CDA67750)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 49 – Stenhammar
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 51 – Taubert & Rosenhain' (CDA67765)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 51 – Taubert & Rosenhain
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 52 – Goetz & Wieniawski' (CDA67791)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 52 – Goetz & Wieniawski
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 53 – Reger & Strauss' (CDA67635)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 53 – Reger & Strauss
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 54 – Somervell & Cowen' (CDA67837)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 54 – Somervell & Cowen
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 55 – Widor' (CDA67817)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 55 – Widor
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 56 – Kalkbrenner' (CDA67843)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 56 – Kalkbrenner
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 57 – Wiklund' (CDA67828)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 57 – Wiklund
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 58 – Pixis & Thalberg' (CDA67915)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 58 – Pixis & Thalberg
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 59 – Zarzycki & Żeleński' (CDA67958)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 59 – Zarzycki & Żeleński
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £10.50ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £10.50 CDA67958  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 60 – Dubois' (CDA67931)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 60 – Dubois
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £12.00ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £12.00 CDA67931  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 61' (CDA67950)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 61
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £10.50ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £10.50 CDA67950  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 62 – Gounod' (CDA67975)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 62 – Gounod
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £10.50ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £10.50 CDA67975  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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