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Love songs

Angela Hewitt (piano)
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RECORD OF THE MONTH
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: November 2020
Kulturstiftung Marienmünster, Germany
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: July 2021
Total duration: 75 minutes 48 seconds

Cover artwork: Portrait of Catherine Vlasto (1897, detail) by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington / akg-images
 

Angela Hewitt’s new album is clearly destined to become a favourite. Some of the best-known musical declarations of love across the centuries, heard in transcriptions by some of the great pianists (including Angela herself); this is simply exquisite and not to be missed.

Reviews

‘This is Hewitt close up and personal … here, she opens her soul … the impression she conveys is of someone sitting at home on their own as the light fades, playing some favourite music purely for their own enjoyment … this is a lovely recital, one to return to often’ (Gramophone)

‘Angela Hewitt’s spacious, uncluttered approach revels unashamedly in the pianism while still letting the original songs sing … the real treats are Hewitt’s own arrangements … the engaging liner notes weave a thread through Hewitt’s own memories as well as the parent music. In all, this beautifully recorded recital is a gift to all song-loving pianists who wrestle with the instrument’s stubbornly percussive nature’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More

‘It's a beautifully made collection … you can tell it means a great deal to Hewitt’ (BBC Record Review)

‘Rapturous and rhapsodic … a beguiling collection … and a delight’ (The Guardian)» More

‘This beguiling sequence of transcriptions was Hewitt’s lockdown project. Using a broad conception of a ‘love song’, she is able to include her own impressive arrangement of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (a love song to his wife) with Schubert’s An die Musik (a love song to Music) in Gerald Moore’s memorable recreation and Siloti’s version of Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry. Each of the 23 is beautiful, and the whole has a gentle, even religious solemnity.’ (The Sunday Times)

‘If, like me, you’ve appreciated Hewitt as a performer of control and precision, then prepare to throw your hat in the air listening to the wild rubato of Widmung (Schumann/Liszt), or thrill to her joyously uninhibited Cäcilie (Strauss/Reger). But even these are topped by two arrangements of her own, of Bist du bei mir (Stölzel attr. Bach) and the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No 5’ (Pianist)» More

‘Hewitt’s innate taste, discernment and creativity have resulted in a lovely experience in a world still menacingly dark and grim for reasons apart from the pandemic … as usual, Hewitt’s liner notes are a model of seamlessly melded scholarship and personal reactions and reminiscences … one especially imaginative inclusion, which was not technically a song at all, is Hewitt’s own transcription of the Adagietto movement from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony’ (Limelight, Australia)

‘Canada’s first lady of the piano, Ottawa-born, UK-based Angela Hewitt wears her heart on her sleeve with her latest release … acclaimed for her sparkling performances of Baroque composers including J S Bach, Hewitt treats listeners to lushly romantic transcriptions of works by Schumann, Schubert, Strauss, Grieg and Falla among others, with even Percy Grainger and George Gershwin making cameo appearances. What’s most fascinating is the way the pianist’s renowned, impeccably clear pianism translates to the milkier sonorities of her chosen repertoire, immediately apparent in Schumann’s 'Widmung', transcribed by Liszt, or Strauss's more delicate 'Freundliche Vision', from 5 Lieder, Op 48. Other highlights include Gluck’s 'Orpheus’ lament & Dance of the blessed spirits' as well as Hewitt’s own transcription of Mahler’s Adagietto from his Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor, brought to life with limpid sentimentalism’ (Winnipeg Free Press, Canada)

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It seems wholly appropriate to begin this recording with one of the greatest piano transcriptions of all time: Franz Liszt’s arrangement of Robert Schumann’s love song Widmung (‘Dedication’). On the eve of their marriage, in September 1840, Robert presented a collection of songs to his beloved Clara as a wedding present—something he had kept completely secret from her for months. ‘Widmung’ is the first song in the cycle (Myrthen, Op 25). The text is by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), and it captures perfectly what Schumann must have felt, finally having been able to marry his beloved after years of fierce opposition from her father.

The song is given the full treatment by Liszt, done with such panache that it totally carries you away. The text, as in all these song transcriptions, should be sung (silently!) by the pianist while playing in order to get the right inflection. (This is why, for many of the works recorded here, we have included the original texts and translations for you to follow.) Not content with stating the opening rapturous melody only once, Liszt repeats it, but gives the tune to the tenor voice the second time round. After some florid gestures (which are pure Liszt), we change key and mood, from A flat major to E major, for the beautiful middle section (‘You are repose, you are peace’). When the opening theme returns, it is now in full flight with, at first, brilliant arpeggios, and then, one final time, accompanied by triumphant chords (‘con somma passione’—‘with great passion’). Schumann ends his song softly, but Liszt gives it one final outburst. I first played this as an encore decades ago, but to this day it never fails to thrill me time and time again.

Schumann’s song Du bist wie eine Blume (‘You are like a flower’) comes from the same collection—Myrthen, Op 25—as does ‘Widmung’, but here the poet is Heinrich Heine.

The arranger, Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938), was one of the greatest pianists of his time—along with Busoni. His career was all the more remarkable given the fact that he was largely self-taught. He is perhaps most famous these days for his Studies on Chopin’s Études (brilliantly recorded by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion), but he also wrote transcriptions of songs by Brahms and Schubert, as well this one by Schumann, dating from 1921. Those familiar with the original might jump at hearing the transition from C sharp to C natural in the third bar of the accompaniment, and also will not recognize the beautiful counterpoint added to the tune on the words ‘Betend, dass Gott dich erhalte’ (which actually sounds like something Schumann himself might have written).

Now back to Liszt for the third transcription on this recording. Frühlingsnacht (‘Spring night’) is the final song in Schumann’s collection entitled Liederkreis, Op 39, and is another of the nearly 140 songs he wrote during 1840, the glorious ‘Year of Song’. In a letter to his beloved, Schumann wrote that this cycle contained ‘my most romantic music ever, with much of you in it, dearest Clara’. The Liederkreis is set to poetry by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857).

The original accompaniment for this song is very virtuosic, at times almost overshadowing the vocal line. Liszt cleverly incorporates both, at times choosing to go only with the piano part. The original song is quite short; Liszt doubles the length of the piece by tacking on a sort of free improvisation the second time round. The triumphant feeling reached in the words ‘She is yours, is yours!’ is extended with a stringendo at the end, the music going right to the top of the keyboard.

Schubert’s Ständchen (‘Serenade’) must be one of the most famous songs ever written, and it’s not surprising that Liszt turned his hand to it. Written by Schubert in the last year of his life, 1828, it was published posthumously as part of the collection Schwanengesang (‘Swansong’). The text is by Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860)—he who famously gave the nickname ‘Moonlight’ to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op 27 No 2.

The opening bars of piano accompaniment in the Liszt transcription are marked differently from those in the original: in the latter, the left hand, under the staccato right-hand chords, has a rest on each third beat, implying that very little pedal is needed. Liszt, on the other hand, clearly writes ‘Pedal in jedem Takt’ (‘pedal in every bar’) and holds the bass notes for the full three beats—probably because later on when the melody is introduced it would have been difficult not to use a fair amount of pedal. The melancholy of the singer—hopeful, passionate, but ultimately not so sure that his beloved will actually appear—is beautifully captured by Liszt, though it can easily be cheapened. Between the first two verses, he inserts some extra commentary, later extending it even more with an ‘echo’ variation of the theme: very clever! The chromatic scale, high up on the keyboard, before the final lines is a true Lisztian gesture. It makes me wonder what he must have done when playing compositions of other composers such as Chopin, who, after hearing Liszt playing one of his nocturnes, told him to play it as written or not to play it at all!

When we think of a lieder accompanist par excellence, the first name that comes to mind is surely Gerald Moore (1899-1987). He played for all the greats—Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf and de los Ángeles, to name but three—and also wrote a wonderful book, The Unashamed Accompanist. (An LP with the same title was one of my cherished possessions and most listened-to albums when I was a child.) He would have played Schubert’s song An die Musik (‘To Music’) countless times with many a singer, but he also made an arrangement for solo piano which, in the late 1940s, was the signature tune of the programme ‘Music Magazine’ on the BBC Home Service. He also performed it as the encore at the end of his farewell concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1967 (with the three singers named above), a recording of which you can find online. Moore wrote about his arrangement:

‘To Music’ is among the most beautiful of Schubert’s songs, but in fact its vocal line, with its long phrases and leaps of sixth and seventh, is perhaps less easy to sing than to play. I have felt justified, therefore, in adapting the song as a straightforward piano solo. The music remains as Schubert wrote it: I hope that in this new form it will make new friends.

For the second verse, Moore doubles the melody in octaves, and throughout he cunningly leaves out (or ties over) some of the repeated chords in order to let the melodic notes shine through more easily.

One of my fondest memories is having had the pleasure of accompanying Dame Felicity Lott in this beautiful ‘love song’ to music. The text is by Schubert’s close friend, Franz von Schober.

Now we turn to another great composer of lied, Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Back in the 1990s, I found out from my record producer Ludger Böckenhoff about a transcription, by Max Reger, of Strauss’s song Morgen!. It became one of my most frequent encores (especially after ending a recital with the Liszt sonata—it was the only piece I felt I could play after that). It was also one of the reasons for which I wanted to make this recording of love songs in the first place. When doing my research for this album, a group of Strauss song transcriptions was therefore a must.

The German pianist Walter Gieseking (1895-1956) arranged several of Strauss’s lieder, including Freundliche Vision (‘A pleasant vision’). Listening to different versions of the original song, I was totally captivated by Arleen Auger’s remarkable performance of it (which you can see online), in which she seemed never to take a breath, despite the great stillness she invoked. (I once performed with her in San Francisco—a total joy!) The song begins in C sharp major with a gentle ostinato accompaniment in the piano, and the voice enters hesitatingly, staying on the same G sharp for the first six notes. When the dream becomes—supposedly—reality, the music shifts into D major, the actual key of the piece. Gorgeous harmonies support the voice, with a shift onto G minor at the word ‘Frieden’ (‘peace’). The last seven bars are a stroke of genius: over a D pedal point in the bass, Strauss adapts two lines of the text to have the lovers go off into the distance while the music becomes ‘immer ruhiger’—even more at peace. The poem is by Otto Julius Bierbaum.

Now to four arrangements of Strauss songs by Max Reger (1873-1916), beginning with Strauss’s most famous lied, Morgen! (‘Tomorrow!’). It comes from Strauss’s Op 27 set, which was a wedding present to his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna. The orchestral version of this song is so well known that we might be forgiven for thinking it’s the original—but the piano version came first. And what a piano part it is! There exists a recording of Strauss himself playing it with the tenor Robert Hutt, in which you can hear the composer trying to keep the tempo going but not being too successful. A beautiful melody (for solo violin in the orchestral version) soars above a broken-chord accompaniment (harp and strings), setting a mood of ecstatic tranquillity. The voice enters almost as an aside (and with ‘a weather report’, as my dear late friend, the critic Michael Steinberg, once said to me) but then takes off on its own before breaking into a recitative-like passage over expressive harmonies in the piano. The last word, like the first, is given to the piano.

Max Reger’s arrangements all stay very close to the originals, though I have changed a few things to eliminate superfluous notes (Reger always wrote so many notes!). It is interesting to know that the poet, John Henry Mackay (a German with a Scottish father), was what we would today call a gay activist.

The next Strauss/Reger transcription is of the song Nachtgang (‘A walk at night’), which I confess to not having known before; now it’s one of my favourites. The piano and voice move together as do the lovers in Bierbaum’s poem, drawing upon a rich harmonic language and some beautiful counterpoint. Each word of the poem is perfectly mirrored in the music, with keys and musical gestures (such as the sigh on ‘weinte’) to match. Strauss ends on the first inversion of an A flat major chord, leaving the scene open in our imaginations.

More treasures are to be found in Allerseelen (‘All Souls’ Day’), a poignant moment of remembrance and grief. The harmonic shift to B minor on the words ‘süßen Blicke’ and the subsequent modulations back to the tonic E flat major are masterful, as is the ecstatic build-up on the words ‘come to my heart and so be mine again’. The final bars of piano accompaniment regretfully bring us back to the present.

One of the first Strauss songs I ever played for a soprano (in this case, the dynamic Helena Juntunen) was Cäcilie, and I adored the accompaniment, which is a marvellous piece of piano-writing, full of élan and fantastic harmonies. Now with this Reger transcription, I get to be both soprano and pianist. What a thrilling piece it is! Composed all in one go on the eve of Strauss’s wedding, it is part of the Op 27 set presented to his bride. In Reger’s transcription it becomes an exciting solo piano piece in its own right.

Decades ago I got to know the touching transcription of Gluck’s Orpheus’ lament when a friend gave me Wilhelm Kempff’s CD of Bach transcriptions (on which the piece is included, and which was an inspiration for me when I recorded my own album of Bach Arrangements). Both the father and grandfather of Kempff (1895-1991) were organists, and Wilhelm grew up playing the organ, improvising, and then transcribing many works for piano, as Busoni (whose art Kempff admired greatly) had done before him. He wanted to present audiences with works that deserved to be better known, and this was one way of doing it. He was also a master of legato playing, and a great singer at the keyboard.

That is amply demonstrated in his transcription of the ballet music that Gluck added to his opera Orfeo ed Euridice in 1744 when it was first presented in Paris. The Dance of the blessed spirits opens Act II and is scored for solo flute and strings. I’ve included it as a love song because the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice is of course one of the great love stories of all time. Unlike the original, which begins with the F major minuet-like section, Kempff jumps right in with the D minor flute solo (a true lament), before making the transition to F major for the final page. Another transcription of this lament, by Sgambati (played perhaps more frequently than Kempff’s), leaves out the F major section altogether, which I feel is a shame as it’s so beautiful and calming. Gluck always searched for ‘a beautiful simplicity’, and here he certainly found it. The ballet in the opera is staged in the Elysian Fields—the final resting place of pure souls.

When I was a child, there was at home a hardcover edition of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach that seemed like a treasure. I hardly dared open it as it looked and felt so beautiful (it was the Hermann Keller edition for Peters, published in 1949). Among the treasures therein was No 25, the aria Bist du bei mir. It wasn’t until I entered my teens and started studying German that I would have had a clue as to what the words meant, but I always thought the melody incredibly beautiful. I never imagined that perhaps it was not by J S Bach himself. Only decades later did I hear that it was in fact by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690-1749)—an aria from his opera Diomedes, first performed in 1718. Michael Maul at Leipzig’s Bach Archive tells me that the libretto was also written by Stölzel, and that in the aria, Diomedes, stranded on a hostile island, assures his beloved Pulcheria of his undying love. The strophic aria is sung by both in alternation.

I made my own transcription before knowing that, presenting the tune as though it were sung by both the woman and the man. They take turns until eventually they sing together, demonstrating a perfect unity.

It is interesting to know that Anna Magdalena (Bach’s second wife) wrote out this aria herself in the Notebook that was so lovingly compiled, and indeed that the aria from the Goldberg Variations appears, also in her handwriting, in between the pages of this song.

In January 2018, I organized a private festival in a hotel on the Grand Canal in Venice. Friends from all over the world attended, and it was one of the best few days of my life. One of the four concerts I presented was an evening of music and poetry with the actor Roger Allam. Our programme had Italy as a theme, and we ended with Roger reading the final pages of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, after which I played the Adagietto from Mahler’s fifth symphony (because of its association with the movie of the same name as Mann’s novella). There wasn’t a dry eye in the house after that.

On the internet I had found an arrangement by Otto Singer, but I wasn’t happy with it. Instead I took the orchestral score, going through it bar by bar, and ended up with my own transcription. What is amazing and beautiful to me is how clear the counterpoint becomes when you hear it played on the piano. Of course I can’t do the glissando down from that top D like a violin can do, but I can imagine it. Indeed, now I find it impossible to hear this beautiful movement played in a dragging tempo with lots of vibrato. That, it seems, wasn’t how Mahler envisaged it anyway. This adagietto is a love song for his wife-to-be, Alma Schindler. It was his declaration of love. He sent the manuscript to her—with no words attached. She understood what it meant and told him to come to her. So reported the conductor Willem Mengelberg (whom Mahler trusted more than anyone when it came to interpretations of his works), who heard the story from both of them. (Mengelberg recorded this movement several times, always ranging between seven and eight minutes in length rather than the twelve or more of some modern-day conductors.) Mahler was in the first throes of a passion, and indeed in the middle section of this movement he used the ‘love glance’ leitmotif from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It is a miraculous creation and gives me enormous pleasure to play.

Grieg published three versions of his song Våren (‘Spring’): the original (which I once had the privilege of playing for the beautiful Anne Sofie von Otter), an orchestral version, and this one for solo piano (under the title Letzter Frühling—'Last spring'). Even after hearing only the first few bars, you wouldn’t mistake this music for anyone but Grieg, so unique is his style. The poet is extolling the beauties of the coming of spring, though lamenting that it probably will be his last one. It’s beautiful how he takes the music up an octave for the second verse, giving an even greater idea of outdoor space and fresh air.

Ich liebe dich (‘I love you’) is probably Grieg’s most famous song. His piano transcription becomes a sweeping solo in which much of the writing is similar to what we find in his popular piano concerto.

It’s rather nice to follow the Grieg songs with a transcription done by the Australian-born pianist and composer Percy Grainger, as he and Grieg were close associates and friends. This transcription of Fauré’s Nell was done in 1924, when Grainger was living in White Plains, New York, and still performing widely. I was delighted to find it some years ago, as I’ve known this song since I was a teenager and have always adored its soaring melody, rippling accompaniment and rich harmonies.

Grainger is immensely prolific with his markings in the score—some of which I find far too eccentric and overdone for Fauré, who himself hated sentimentality. But it’s exceedingly well written and obviously done by someone who was a great pianist in their own right.

Manuel de Falla’s song cycle Siete canciones populares españolas has been arranged for umpteen instruments, including mandolin, cello and violin. I learned it in the original version for soprano and piano when I was a teenager at university and have always adored it. This arrangement for solo piano was made by Falla’s student and close associate Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989), who also orchestrated the songs. I’ve chosen the last five of the cycle, since they can be classified as love songs. The cycle was composed in 1914 and uses authentic folk songs from different regions of Spain.

The accompaniment to the sad folk tune of ‘Asturiana’ is still, hushed, hypnotic, with the constant broken octaves perhaps reminiscent of the drone of the Asturian bagpipe.

The lively ‘Jota’ is a dance associated with the region of Aragon, and it is usually performed with castanets. The rhythmic sections (in which the voice is silent) contrast with more lyrical ones (known as the ‘copla’—the verse) in which the melody, moving in stepwise motion, ends with a flourish.

A beautiful, peaceful moment is created by the next song, ‘Nana’—a lullaby that Falla said was the first music he ever heard from his mother’s lips as a baby. The accompaniment is again, like in ‘Asturiana’, hypnotic, in that it keeps the same rhythmic figure throughout, here over a pedal E. The melody, however, in contrast to this, is anything but square, and it needs to be played very freely. The harmonies reflect the Moorish influence on much Andalusian music.

The tune of ‘Canción’ supposedly comes from the region of Granada. On YouTube you can hear a version of it under the title ‘Romance Pascual de los Pelegrinitos’, done by the famous flamenco dancer and singer La Argentinita, accompanied by Federico García Lorca. That version alternates between major and minor; Falla hints at this in the second half, altering the joyous mood, and he also puts the melody in canon with the accompaniment (in this transcription, of course, you play both with the same hand), before returning to G major towards the end.

‘Polo’ throws us into the dark world of flamenco, with the piano imitating the guitar and the accents signifying the hand-clapping of the people looking on. The singer not so much sings as wails a melody that, in true flamenco fashion, is almost entirely made up of contiguous notes, bringing the cycle to a brilliant close.

In July 1937, while working on the music for the film The Goldwyn Follies, the thirty-eight-year-old George Gershwin died of a brain tumour. The first symptoms had only manifested themselves at the beginning of that year. The film was released in 1938, and one of its hit songs was Love walked in, with lyrics by Gershwin’s brother, Ira.

Gershwin wrote what he called his ‘Brahmsian’ tune back in 1930, but it remained in a drawer. He then chose it for the film because of its suitability for the actor who sang it (wonderfully, I might add): Kenny Baker. Ira considered it a bit ‘churchy’. In the movie, it makes its first appearance when the lead (Baker) is making hamburgers in a diner, and, unbeknown to him, the heroine has just walked in. I used to listen incessantly to this and other Gershwin songs in the 1980s on a cassette recording by the brilliant American pianist and composer William Bolcom and his mezzo-soprano wife Joan Morris.

Percy Grainger made this transcription between September and October 1945. During the war he exhausted himself by giving hundreds of benefit concerts, mostly for the troops. No doubt this is the kind of thing he played for them. The middle section features a ‘woggle’, as he called it, which doesn’t need to be played with an exact number of ‘woggle-notes’. The arranger also offers a choice of two endings: I’ve chosen the simpler one that seems more in keeping with the style of the song.

For the last love song on this recording, I remain with an arrangement by Percy Grainger, but not one he did for solo piano. In 1901 Grainger settled in London and began to research folk music. One of his earliest finds was from a book of folk songs published in Ireland in 1855. The song had no title other than Irish tune from County Derry. Grainger arranged it first for wordless chorus, subsequently making versions for wind band or piano and several for orchestra. The one I play here is a beautiful re-arrangement—of one of the orchestral versions—by the great Russian pianist, conductor and composer Alexander Siloti (1863-1945), who taught for many years at the Juilliard School in New York.

The ‘Londonderry Air’ as we now know it did not then have the lyrics (known as ‘Danny boy’) by Frederic Edward Weatherly attached to it. They came along only in 1913 but have since remained associated with the tune. I give them to you here (so you can sing along!). Other words were used (‘I would be true’ by Howard Arnold Walter) when the tune was sung by choirboys alone at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.

It means a lot to me to present you with this recording, especially as it was made during a time of great isolation for us all. Love is what keeps us going—love in all its forms. To all those I have loved, love and will love still, and to all those who love me, I say a big thank you!

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.
– Maya Angelou

Angela Hewitt © 2021

The idea for this recording of love song transcriptions came to me at least twenty years ago, if not twenty-five. I remember because the then owner (and founder) of Hyperion Records, the wonderful Ted Perry, absolutely loved it, and he even (jokingly?) asked to appear on the cover with me. But the years went by, Ted died, and I never found the time to bring the idea to fruition. I was too busy doing so much other repertoire and touring the world.

Then in March 2020, life as we knew it came to a stop. The COVID-19 pandemic put us into lockdown, and all my concert engagements for the ensuing months disappeared overnight. That finally gave me the opportunity to spend many an hour in the solitude of my home researching my idea and putting together this recording—and then of course learning the works that were new to my repertoire. It is therefore with a huge amount of happiness and satisfaction that I now share it with you.

I imagine that ever since humans began to sing, they sang about love. Being musicians, we can’t escape it. It’s everywhere—and of course not just in pieces that have romantic titles or are set to love poems. Think of a Chopin nocturne, a Brahms intermezzo, a Beethoven slow movement or, dare I say, even a Bach sarabande. Music expresses what we are often too scared to put into words. One of my favourite quotes of all time comes from that ultra-Romantic, Hector Berlioz, who wrote at the end of his Mémoires:

Which of the two powers, love or music, can elevate man to the sublimest heights? … It is a great problem. Yet it seems to me that this is the answer: love can give no idea of music; music can give an idea of love … Why separate one from the other? They are the two wings of the soul.

Angela Hewitt © 2021

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