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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Kurt ATTERBERG (1887-1974)
The Nine Symphonies

CD1
Symphony No. 1 in B minor op. 3 (1912) [40:47]
Symphony No. 4 in G minor Sinfonia piccola op. 14 (1918) [21:03]
CD2
Symphony No. 2 in F major op. 6 (1913) [41:00]
Symphony No. 5 in D minor Sinfonia funebre op. 20 (1922) [34:23]
CD3
Symphony No. 3 op. 10 in D minor Västkustbilder - West Coast Pictures (1914-16) [37:05]
Symphony No. 6 op. 31 in C major (1928) [31:06]
CD4
Symphony No. 7 Sinfonia Romantica, op. 45 (1941/2) [28:56]
Symphony No. 8, in E minor op. 48 (1944/45) [31:31]
CD5
Symphony No. 9 Sinfonia Visionaria op. 54 (1956) [40:45]
ÄlvenThe River - Symphonic Poem op. 33 (1929) [19:50]
Satu Vihavainen (mezzo) (9)
Gabriel Suovanen (baritone) (9)
NDR Chor; Prager Kammerchor (9)
Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt/Ari Rasilainen (1, 4, 2, 5)
NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Stuttgart/Ari Rasilainen (3, 6, 7, 8)
NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Hannover/Ari Rasilainen (9)
Rec. 1998-2003, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Germany. DDD
Coproduction: CPO, Hessischer Rundfunk, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Südwestrundfunk
CPO 777 118-2 [5 CDs: 61:55 + 75:34 + 68:18 + 62:43 + 60:35]

Pay-off time for those who were prepared to ‘play the long game’ and wait for this boxed set to appear. CPO issued these five discs individually at full price between 2000 and 2003. Now they appear as a bargain set first on the shelves only a month after the thirtieth anniversary of Atterberg’s death.

Atterberg, a Swedish composer, is the very model of the late-romantic Scandinavian. Writing from the perspective of 1974, John H. Yoell in his book ‘The Nordic Sound’ (Crescendo Press, 1974) said that Atterberg was "listed among the casualties buried beneath the avalanche of non-tonal music engulfing the world since 1950. But tides of fad and fashion ... did not erase what Atterberg managed to accomplish nor quench his impulse to keep working at an age when most men sit rocking on the porch." Indeed Atterberg had to contend with another burden: that of spending a goodly part of his very long life watching the musical world reject his lovingly crafted lyrical works on the waxing moon of dodecaphony.

Atterberg’s winning and even compelling ways show him to be an adept of orchestral colour and seething incident. His scores are of the romantic-folk-impressionist type. Yoell considered him the equal of Stenhammar and a cut above Alfvén and Rangström. Personally I would place him above Stenhammar alongside a Swedish symphonist not mentioned by Yoell but also celebrated by CPO (and Sterling!), Wilhelm Peterson-Berger.

His biography can be summed up rather brusquely as follows: Initially studying as a civil engineer and then working in the Patent Office (1912-1940). Gave up engineering for music. Studied with Hallén in Stockholm. Continued his education in Munich, Berlin and Stuttgart (the scene of some of these recordings). Became a solo cellist. Then took up conducting at Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm (1913-1922). Longstanding music critic, writing for the ‘Stockholms Tidningen’. Held many official posts in Swedish musical academe and other artistic institutions. Conducted internationally. Famously won the Schubert Centenary Columbia Graphophone competition with his Sixth Symphony in 1928.

Atterberg seems to have sided with the Nazis during World War Two and his symphonies 7 and 8 were premiered in Germany. This did little to help him secure performances post-1945 when a generation of priests of dissonance were newly risen to eminence. Atterberg’s musical style was certainly backward-looking and folk-centred so this approach will have appealed to the Third Reich’s ‘establishment’. When Atterberg recorded the Sixth Symphony, shortly after it had won him the Columbia competition, he went to Berlin to make the recording with the Berlin Phil. In all fairness we should also recall that in Nazi Germany the most frequently played non-German composer was Jean Sibelius. However Atterberg’s music has about it a lambent lyrical life partly tapped from Swedish folk sources. That ebullient life transcends the sympathy it evoked from Nazi sources.

Atterberg's symphonies on record have, until CPO and Ari Rasilainen set about them, been patch-worked across labels. No. 2 on Swedish Society Discofil. No. 3 on Caprice (still a very fine recording by the way). Nos. 1 and 4 on Sterling. No. 6 is multiply recorded on dell'Arte, Koch and most accessibly on Bis. Numbers 7 Romantica and 8 are also on Sterling. We should remind ourselves that the CPO cycle while premiering on record only the Ninth presents in most cases only the second CD appearances of all these works and the first in full digital format (excepting only 3, 6, 7, 8).

CPO Disc 1 couples symphonies 1 and 4; the selfsame works harnessed on Sterling CDS-1010-2 at full price. Sterling rescued an LP recording of the Fourth Symphony from oblivion and coupled it with the First Symphony - the results of sessions in the Berwald Hall, in Stockholm on 3-5 November 1986. One difference between the two recordings is that Frank Hedman who produced the Sterling discs back in 1989 streamed the Adagio and Presto of the First Symphony together into a single track (tr. 2) while CPO keep the two separate. The Fourth had been recorded back in 1976 in Norrköping where the control room was in the hands of a certain Robert von Bahr now better known now as the presiding angel of BIS. Sterling were unable to track down the master-tape of the Fourth Symphony so what we hear is overdubbed from a vinyl disc.

The Sterling First Symphony is conducted by Stig Westerberg and the orchestra is the Swedish Radio Symphony. The timings of the two versions are only minutes apart with Westerberg being a few seconds quicker than Rasilainen. This work is a lanky great 40 minute symphony full of Rimskian colour, subtle textures, heroic turbulence akin, in the tempestuous finale, to Howard Hanson’s first two symphonies. When the supremely confident French horns sing out in Tchaikovskian warmth over the top of the aspiring strings (at the climax of the finale) you know that you are confronting a seriously-intentioned symphonist. You also know that the CPO engineers have done well to capture such virile playing with natural fidelity. Both versions are good at putting across the exhilarating spasm and majesty of the final five minutes. The only differences I noted between the two versions was that the violins of the Frankfurt orchestra sounded sweeter than those of Swedish Radio and generally there seemed a more naturally spacious effect on the CPO. It was, after all, made fourteen years after the Sterling sessions. Otherwise there is little to choose between the two except of course that the Sterling is at premium price.

The Fourth Symphony was completed in 1918, the same year that Atterberg finished his first opera, Hårvard Harpolekare. It is splashed with many Sibelian touches especially in the bristling tense high writing for violins redolent of the Finn’s light-suffused Sixth Symphony itself recorded by Georg Schneevoigt who in 1919 premiered the Atterberg in Stockholm.

The Fourth is much more concise than the First and runs to just over twenty minutes. Sten Frykberg for Sterling is perhaps a minute quicker overall. The spirit of folksong is there in full and a life-enhancing tune courses through the first movement. The andante second movement is simply magical with a Grainger-like folk-tune intoned smoothly and lovingly by the clarinet over the gossamer glow of ppp strings - we will meet that effect again. In the Sterling version such is the whisper-quiet of the music you can hear the light bristle of groove noise both here and in the finale. The scherzo is all over in less than 1½ minutes recalling, along the way, Dvořák’s New World. It ends with a veritable wink.

Rasilainen is a mite more heavy-handed than Frykberg who is closer to the music’s Mendelssohnian faery-lightness and strangely enough his sound-stage is kinder to this spirit than the grand hall ambience achieved by Hessischer Rundfunk for CPO. The finale is lively with the Swedish equivalent of a lesghinka and the stompingly triumphant dances that Atterberg became adept at turning to symphonic gold in his finales. Listen to the way the orchestra’s leader launches and sustains a touchingly yielding obbligato half sob, half cry at ppp at 2:45 continuing for many bars. The exuberance and exhilaration of the finale recalls Lemminkainen’s Homecoming, Smetana’s Bartered Bride furiants and Rimsky’s Capriccio Espagnol. The piece ends with the usual affirmative blows topped off with a high squeal from the first violins. This sounds for all the world like the village fiddlers dashing off one last stratospheric stab and slash with the triangle resounding as the dancers fall exhausted to the floor. A lovely work this. Some vinyl wear can be heard in the demanding finale of the Symphony in the Sterling version. No such problem in the CPO.

The second disc couples symphonies 2 and 5. The Second Symphony was recorded by Stig Westerberg in October 1967 and first issued on LP SLT 33179. It runs to 39:19 as against Rasilainen’s 41:00. The Westerberg is on Swedish Society Discofil CD SCD1006 and is coupled with Atterberg’s famous Suite No. 3 for violin, viola and strings; itself the acme of the Nordic crepuscular romance and not to be missed. Rasilainen clearly warms to the beauty of this softly singing music contrasted with a slammingly sanguine epic-triumphant spirit. His version reminded me at times of Howard Hanson’s First Symphony Nordic which dates from about eight years after the Atterberg. The Westerberg still sounds the business but his violins while having a more supple victory in their weight lack the silky gleam of the Hannover NDR orchestra nor does the brass sound as cleanly emphatic and free from that hint of surface spall. Interestingly the music reminded me occasionally of Richard Strauss and in the swooning ebb and flow of the first movement of Louis Glass’s masterful Symphony No. 5 Sinfonia Svastica again lying about eight years in the future. Westerberg scores for additional hushed enchantment in the wonderful Adagio.

The Fifth Symphony is the Sinfonia Funebre. It may be dark but it doesn’t sound funereal to me. In the Fifth’s first movement there is a prominent part for orchestral piano. This is a most impressive movement with strong Sibelian credentials - music of bardic surging confidence likened to the first movements of the Stenhammar Second Symphony and the Moeran G minor Symphony as well as the finales of the first four Joly Braga Santos symphonies. Before Atterberg succumbs to a lush Korngoldian luxuriance in the second movement he write music that links directly with Nystroem’s much later Sinfonia del Mare in its magical redolence of the endlessly murmuring sea miles. This is saturatedly romantic material and its neglect in the face for example of the understandable popularity of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is incomprehensible. The finale has a fugal character and there is some wonderfully pointed fast writing for the violins at 5:20 on CPO. Again the piano adds another voice to the texture. It is oddly in tempo di valse with possibly a cloaked reference to Sibelius’s Valse Triste and even to the eruptively orgasmic pages of Ravel’s La Valse. Samuel Barber, many years later, does something similar in the orchestral version of the Tango from Souvenirs. This waltz can also be compared in subtlety with its use by Prokofiev who infuses a psychological message - here the ‘strapline’ is one of brooding and inimical fate. At 12:10 there is a return to the intimately consolatory rocking motif noted before as a precursor to the Nystroem Sinfonia del Mare here touched with the passion-spent exhaustion of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The Symphony ends in a quietly dismissive pizzicato - almost impassive. Both Rasilainen and Westerberg are impressive. Westerberg’s engineers lent his recording an additional cosiness that perhaps slightly muffles the many instrumental strata.

Westerberg conducts the Stockholm Philharmonic on Musica Sveciae MSCD620 recorded in August 1990. He brought out for me the fury of the writing in the first movement just as much as Rasilainen. Incredibly some of this prefigures Vaughan Williams’ snarling Fourth Symphony from a decade later. Once again there is little difference between the timing adopted by the two men.

The Third Symphony is in the usual three movements. Subtitled West Coast Pictures this is a classic of Scandinavian marine poetry. It’s the place to start any exploration of Atterberg. The music is copiously romantic but here delicate and limpid impressionism is an important element. This is the most impressionistic of all the Atterberg symphonies. The murmurous first movement Sun Haze once again predicts Nystroem's Sinfonia del Mare and unknowingly parallels Bax's Tintagel. Storm is the central movement. There's a real surging urgency about this music which crashes, swells and thunders in oceanic glory. Wonderfully raw and brawnily Odyssean writing for the horns adds distinctively to the aural pantone. The schema of the piece is worth noting: two largely placid and poetically self-absorbed movements flanking a feral storm.

Ehrling's pioneering version with the Stockholm Phil on Caprice CAP21634 can still be had. It is very effective and lovingly recorded. Ehrling is a minute or so brisker than Rasilainen in the outer movements. But frankly Rasilainen's slower pacing suits the music better in those movements. Try the great slow unleashing of the world-conquering melody at 4:09; why are we not hearing this at the Proms? CPO's recording is also more attentive to detail. Time after time solos emerge with greater command. Were this a one-to-one confrontation I would still prefer Rasilainen. As it is, this CPO set is available at what amounts to bargain price per disc for the complete cycle. I would not want you to miss even one of these fine symphonies.

The Sixth Symphony has had reams written about it most of which detracts from its considerable intrinsic attractions. The tripartite movement pattern is followed. Once again Rasilainen is faster than the main modern competition (we'll ignore Beecham and Toscanini). That competition is from Jun'Ichi Hirokami and the Norrköping orchestra on BIS-CD-553. Bis or Hirokami failed in their courage and so the coupling there is not one of the other symphonies but A Vårmland Rhapsody and Ballad Without Words. Even so Hirokami's reading and Bis's refined and highly detailed recording is not to be dismissed easily. You just have to listen to the hushed enchantment of the start of the middle slow movement and Johnny Jannesson's clarinet solo to know that you are in the presence of estimable music-making. CPO, by contrast, have one of Atterberg's finest symphonies as a coupling: No. 3. Apart from some false-sounding braggartry in the first and last movements the whole of the Sixth works well as another example of Atterberg's folksy-poetic drama. Folksong always buoys up his inspiration as in that sad-joyous clarinet solo in the Adagio. To a lapidary diaphanous ostinato Atterberg delivers yet more fine melodic inspiration in the finale with Mahlerian grandeur being not a stone's-throw away.

If you were considering buying CPO 999 641-2 (symphonies 7 and 8) by itself it would be up against direct competition from Sterling CDS-1026-2 (Malmö SO/Michail Jurowski). In both works Rasilainen is not in fear of pushing forward. He is almost five minutes faster than Jurowski in No. 7 (four of those five minutes quicker in the big Drammatico first movement). In No. 8 he is three minutes shorter.

After the Mahler 5-style start of the Sinfonia Romantica (No. 7) there is the usual fine skein of folk-accented melodic impressionism. The finale is almost warlike (rather like Bax's Northern Ballad No. 1) and the music takes on the character of a crushing giant's jig with some rawly raucous work delivered from the brass benches. On balance the Sterling is probably more sumptuously recorded not that the CPO is not excellent.

The Eighth Symphony is an exercise in joyous folk grandeur - in fact Atterberg in this mode strikes me as the Scandinavian Dvořák. His treatment of simple folk melodies is always dignified and never pompous. He excavates the latency each folk dance and song has for the epic and for dramatic effect. In this work he makes delightful use of pizzicato and woodwind in a way familiar from Sibelius in The Tempest written two decades earlier. In the finale the main theme sounds a little like 'There was a jolly miller once ...' Intriguingly the stuttering trumpet motif from the start of Mahler 5 (already noted in the Atterberg Seventh) can also be heard in the background in the finale of Atterberg 8 (tr. 7 7:55 on CPO). Also very obvious are the passing quotes, in the first movement of No. 8, to the Schubert Great C major (tr.4 1:58 Sterling). The third movement molto vivo reminds me of Sibelius's lighter theatre music mixed with Mahlerian ländler. Then again Atterberg rises to a syncopated majesty at 1:08 (tr. 6) that transcends any influences. There are regal moments in Dvořák 7 and 8 that this at the very least equals: that's how good this music is.

Back to comparisons: once again the Sterling coupling including No.8 shades the CPO in refinement and transparency of sound. Then again the second movement in Jurowski's hands is taken a mite too languidly - the bassoon and cuckooing flute almost coming to a standstill - although it does make mesmerising listening.

And now to the final disc; the only one I have reviewed to date.

After the strongly tuneful Nordic romantic-impressionism of the earlier scores some listeners are in for a culture shock with the Ninth Symphony. All the auguries are promising. The text is from the Voluspá ('The Face of the Prophetess'), part of the Icelandic Edda - a creation epic. The Vanir and Aesir are mentioned in the sung text as are Odin, Midgård, Yggdrasil, Heimdall, Thor, Loki and Frigg. Is this going to be a vivid nationalistic score? Well actually, no. The contours undulate, the approach is narrative rather than dramatic and the music is sombre, concentrated, serious and broad. It is determinedly tonal but it is as if the composer no longer sees any compulsion to create magical effects or diaphanous brilliance. It is predominantly meditative music with animation only entering in Med spjut sprängde Oden, Rym styr un östern and Nu stundar Friggas movements (trs. 6, 11, 12 - the latter two being choral). The Symphony ends after the words:-

"The sun blackens
the land sinks into the sea
The sun blackens
winter's frost in summer
From heaven fall
flaming stars.

...

Much I've experienced
I see far into the future

...

Now the Vala is silent."

Certainly a downbeat ending ... 'not with a bang but a whimper'. None of the visionary exaltation of Rosenberg's Johannes Uppenbarelse, Martinů's Epic of Gilgamesh nor the monumentalism of Goossens' Apocalypse or Schmidt's Book with Seven Seals.

The performance history of this Ninth has been predictably sparse. The premiere was given in Helsinki in 1957 when the conductor was Nils-Erik Fougstedt and the orchestra was the Helsinki Symphony. There was a performance in Dortmund in 1962 and another in Göteborg in 1975 on the anniversary of the composer's death. A tape of the 1957 premiere gave the symphony a kind of half-life on the tape underground. Michael Kube's note is typically helpful and provocative comparing Visionaria with Karl Weigl's Apocalyptic Symphony; Korngold's Symphony in F sharp and Hindemith's Die Harmonie der Welt. The booklet prints the full text as sung and in English and German translation, side by side.

As a balm to those bruised by the sustained sobriety of the Ninth Symphony, Älven - från fjällen till havet (The River - from the Mountains to the Sea) is a symphonic poem written in the wake of the worldwide success of the Sixth Symphony. It was commissioned by the Göteborg Orchestral Society (who revived it in the 1980s with Norman del Mar). It is in seven continuously-played episodes: Through mountains and forests; The great lake; The waterfalls; The quiet, wide stream; The harbour; View from the mountains over the sea; Out to the sea. There is an even more detailed verbal account given by the composer and quoted in the booklet. The musical idiom is comparable with the Third Symphony - alive with colour and contrast as well as being rich in melodic resource. The music moves through cinematic grandeur to impressionistic filigree (à la Bantock's Pierrot of the Minute), to malcontented nightmare rising to a deeply impressive rolling brass theme - more Korngold than Strauss (tr.16). Restless activity is punctuated with a jerkily emphatic romantic motif that suggests the Third Symphony (West Coast Pictures). The star-glimmer of The Harbour is made distraught with some very 'modern' wailings and groans (Ruggles and Varèse perhaps). These give way to an unusually twee Swedish folksong and then to the Delian nobility of the view from a mountain eminence across the sea's miles. In the final episode the sea shouts in a triumph touched on in the Third Symphony; compare also the gale in Bax's November Woods.

The CPO cycle of symphonies can still be purchased separately but at this price why sample. However here are the details if you need them:-

Numbers 1 and 4 CPO 999 639-2

Numbers 2 and 5 CPO 999 565-2

Numbers 3 and 6 CPO 999 640-2

Numbers 7 and 8 CPO 999 641-2

Number 9 and Älven CPO 999 913-2

This is the first cycle on one label, by one conductor but with orchestral service divided between two orchestras: Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt, Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR, SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart.

Rasilainen inspires his orchestras to readings of great intensity and poetry. If you read some of the Atterberg literature you might easily misread these symphonies as pictorial, shallow, technically accomplished but without depth and far too reliant on borrowed folk tunes rather than his own inspiration. Both in hearing these readings and the preparation I made in advance by listening to the other recordings of the first eight symphonies I have no doubt that Atterberg has every right to stand with such symphonists as Bax, Ropartz (whose five are rumoured already to be ‘in the can’), Moeran, Stenhammar and Louis Glass. He is a supremely imaginative virtuoso writer for the orchestra and his sense of symphonic trajectory, mood and scenario matches his extraordinary technical gifts. His inspirations are of the finest quality and if he relies on folk material it is adeptly resolved into the symphonic fabric rather than seeming to be grafted on.

The complete Atterberg symphonies? Well, not quite. It’s a bit like Malcolm Arnold in fact. Atterberg wrote nine numbered symphonies. Arnold wrote nine numbered symphonies. Both wrote a Symphony for Strings but unlike Karl Amadeus Hartmann and William Schuman they did not include them in their numbered canon. This has tended to leave both works out in the cold. As it is, the Atterberg has never been commercially recorded although an athletic and exciting radio studio recording (S-A Axelsson and Malmö Radio Orchestra) has for many years done the rounds among tape and CDR collectors. It was a lost opportunity that it was not added to the Visionaria disc instead of the symphonic poem. All in due time. There is plenty more Atterberg to be recorded. There is for a start the awesomely attractive Three Nocturnes from his ‘Arabian Nights’ opera Fanal; not to mention a systematic recording of the nine orchestral suites. We have most of the concertos but let’s not forget the Double Concerto (violin and cello). And that’s without looking at a Requiem, two string quartets, four ballets, and five full-length grand operas: Hårvard Harpolekare (1918, Harvard the Bard), Bäckahasten (1925), Fanal (1934 - given the extraordinary quality of the Three Nocturnes this should be revived first), Aladdin (1941 - yes, the very same Oehlenschlager drama that inspired Nielsen in his incidental music and Busoni in the finale the Piano Concerto) and The Tempest (1948).

As an anhang to this set don’t forget CPO 999 732-2 which has the Piano Concerto; Rhapsody; Ballade and Passacaglia. However if you are curious about the Piano Concerto you can also hear it in a more substantial coupling on Sterling CDS-1034-2 coupled with the Violin Concerto (1913-14).

So far as presentation is concerned the set simply fits the five individual CDs as issued into a light card slip case. This tends to be CPO’s practice - compare their Korngold and Frankel symphony sets. This differs from the practice of BIS who usually repackage such sets (Alfvén symphonies, orchestral music of Stenhammar, Nielsen symphonies and Vänskä’s Sibelius symphonies) into slimmer line multi-CD boxes with a new booklet. I have no substantial complaints about CPO’s decision; certainly not at this price - in the UK £25:50 for 5 discs.

For now we should focus on having such a sympathetically recorded and magnificently conducted cycle at our finger tips in return for what amounts to Naxos price for the five discs. To enthusiasts who in the 1970s and 1980s moved heaven and earth, bank balances and tape machines to get to hear the full cycle this box represents riches unimaginable.

Rob Barnett


COMPARATIVE REVIEWS OF THE CPO ATTERBERG SERIES as they were released.

All very well worth reading. However do take time to have a look at Lewis Foreman’s highly informative reviews especially the review of symphonies 3 and 6 as well as at Ian Lace’s vividly descriptive general article on Atterberg. My recommendation is that you start with the Third Symphony and then find your own way reserving 9, 5 and 4 towards the end of the listening experience.


Ian Lace on Kurt Atterberg

http://www.musicweb-international.com/film/2000/mar00/ifonly.htm
Symphonies 1 + 4. CPO

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2000/apr00/atterberg.htm
Symphonies 2 + 5. CPO

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2001/Jan01/atterberg.htm
Symphonies 3 + 6. CPO

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2001/Jan01/atterberg.htm
Symphonies 7 + 8. CPO

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2001/Dec01/Atterberg78.htm
Symphonies 9 + Älven. CPO

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Nov03/Atterberg9.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Sept03/atterberg9.htm
Piano Concerto. CPO

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Mar02/Kurt%20ATTERBERG.htm
Concertos: Violin; Piano - Sterling

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/nov99/atterberg.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/oct99/atterberg.htm

 

 



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