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Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962) - In Sound and Thought: Moscow recordings, 1948-1962
J.S. BACH (1685-1750)
Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904 [8:20]††§; Sinfonia in A major, BWV 798 [1:05]**; Toccata in D major, BWV 912 [9:22] ††§
BACH-FEINBERG

Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 533 [11:17] ‡§
BACH-LISZT

Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542/S 463 [9:15]**
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Ballade No 4 in F minor, Op. 52 [10:07] †
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Consolations Nos. 1 & 2 [1:17 + 3:22]**
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Preludes, Op. 23 - Nos. 1, 3, 7, 8 [2:41+3:26+2:21+2:55]**
Étude tableau in D major, Op. 39 No 9 [3:20]**
Alexander SCRIABIN (1871 [72]-1915)
Sonata No 5, Op. 53 [10:09]*
Samuil Feinberg (piano)
rec. *Small Hall, Moscow Conservatory, 22 January 1948; **1950s unspecified; †1952; ††1961; ‡1962 ADD Mono, §Stereo
ARBITER 146 [79:43]

 

Sometimes the greatest perfection of playing fails to be understood by contemporary listeners. Most often, lack of appreciation is the fate of playing that is blessed by refinement and poetry.’ Samuil Feinberg

Time was when Samuil Evgenievich Feinberg - composer, transcriber, pianist, teacher, Jewish intellectual - was little more than a name outside the Soviet Union. In recent years, though, he’s come firmly into the Western consciousness as transcriber and composer. This happened despite, as he put it, having been ‘absolutely knocked out of the composition world’ by his other responsibilities (‘creative work needs […] even more [cultivation] than performing work’).

Feinberg is represented discographically through Volodos’s resurrection of the scherzo arrangement from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony (Sony Classical SK 62691 [1996]), made famous originally by Lazar Berman (whose 1952 recording is included in Brilliant Classics new Berman Edition release [93006]); Hamelin’s The Composer-Pianists (Hyperion CDA 67050 [1998]); Roscoe’s double-CD collection of the complete transcriptions after Bach (Hyperion CDA 67468 [2003]); and the twelve piano sonatas (1915-62), imagined by Nikolaeva to be ‘poems of life’ (BIS CD 1413/14 [2003] review review). [We might also add Aura423-2 - Len]

And as pianist he appears on a selection of discs. ‘Pinnacle of Bach pianism’, legendary among pianophiles, the 1958-59 Melodiya 6-LP set of the Forty Eight, issued in New York two years subsequently (Artia MK 211/12), is near-impossible to find outside libraries. Similarly the Russian Piano School 4-CD release (RCD 16231) - though copies from Eastern Europe turn up occasionally on e-bay. A BMG/Melodiya anthology of Bach and Mozart (74321 25175 2, recorded in Moscow between 1951 and 1962) is deleted.

Through the remarkable initiative of Allan Evans at Arbiter, however - a connoisseur with a knack for searching out archive material no-one else ever seems to get close to - an essential presence is even so ensured in the current market-place. Arbiter 118 (1999) [review], collecting recordings made between 1929 and 1948 in Berlin and Moscow for the Polydor, SSSR and Dolgoigraiushchaya labels, includes Beethoven’s Appassionata, a pair of Liszt Consolations (Nos. 5, 6), Feinberg’s own Suite Op. 11, and music by Bach, Liadov, Schumann, Scriabin and Stanchinsky. The new compilation (2005) draws together previously unpublished Bach recordings in stereo (1961-62) as well as a performance of Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata salvaged from a recital given in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in January 1948.

‘A very cultured man, spiritual, modest, and with a profound dislike of self-promotion […] a deeply visionary artist […] fully aware of the abysses and ambiguities of modern life’ (Christophe Sirodeau, 2003), Feinberg was born in Odessa, 26 May 1890. Brought up in Moscow on a diet of Bach and Beethoven, the Classics and Romantics, he studied most notably with Alexander Goldenweiser at the Conservatory, associate and friend of Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Medtner. Making sure he heard the greats of the day in concert - D'Albert, Reisenauer, Hofmann - he applied himself with tremendous intensity. ‘While studying at the Conservatory […] I learned very quickly. If [Goldenweiser] assigned me two Preludes and Fugues by Bach on a Tuesday to be ready and memorized for Friday, I was able to. I remember I once needed to learn the Eighth Sonata of Scriabin very fast, which I had never heard played or seen the score to. I learned it in four days, a record for me’ (interview, Moscow 23 January 1946, Pianists in Discussion, ed. M. Sokolov [Moscow: 1984]).

His graduation repertory (1911) scaled the awesome. ‘The rules then were that the whole programme should be prepared no more than two to three months before graduation and Goldenweiser adhered to these rules […] my graduation program included not only the 48 Preludes and Fugues by Bach […] but also a Handel Concerto in Stradal’s transcription, an Adagio by Mozart [B minor], Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, the Fourth Sonata of Scriabin, then Franck’s Prelude Choral and Fugue, then Rachmaninov’s [new] Third Concerto, all prepared in a very short time.’

In 1913 Feinberg went to Berlin, his first trip abroad. ‘He nurtured the hope of meeting Busoni and of possibly becoming his pupil. Busoni was famous in Moscow as a pianist and teacher - having taught in the city [1890-91] - and, equally, as a composer and philosopher, largely because of his book Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music [1907] which had been warmly received by young Russian composers such as Arthur Lourié. Unfortunately for history, and for Feinberg, the great maestro was not in Berlin during these weeks in the spring of 1913, and Feinberg had to be content [!] with auditions for Schnabel and Lamond’ (Sirodeau, 2004).

The following year he gave the first public performance in Russia of the complete Forty Eight. Only after conscription, illness, and the Revolution, however, did he embark definitively on a concert career. For well over a generation he was to be associated with the Forty Eight (repeated in 1923, 1938-39, 1940), Beethoven sonata cycles (from 1941), the Schumann and Scriabin canon (the latter for the first time in 1925), Prokofiev and Debussy. On 22 March 1925, with the orchestra of the Theatre of the Revolution under the Armenian Konstantin Saradzhev [Saradzhian], professor of conducting at the Conservatory, he gave the first Soviet performance with orchestra of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto. ‘A genuine sensation’, in Boris Schwarz’s words. The same year, already with some of his compositions published by Universal Edition of Vienna, he appeared at the ISCM Festival in Venice, playing his progressively informed, cyclically-organised Sixth Sonata. Later, in Berlin in 1927, he became one of the first musicians of the century to broadcast ‘live’ on radio.

Increasingly successful in Europe up to 1929, his ascent ceased with the Stalin purges of the late 1930s. ‘At this time […] his friend and editor [the Taneiev disciple] Nikolai Zhilyayev (who had been his [private] composition teacher before 1914) was imprisoned in the context of the Tukhachevsky affair’ (Sirodeau). (Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Red Army marshal, executed 11/12 June 1937 on being sentenced in the secret trial of the ‘Trotskyist Anti-Soviet Military Organisation’. Zhilyayev ‘perished’ the following year.

Subsequent to this chapter, Feinberg’s only permitted future excursion West was a visit to Brussels in June 1938, to sit on the jury of the second Ysaÿe International Musical Contest - won by Emil Gilels; Michelangeli coming controversially seventh. Never a member of the Party, conscious of the fragility of his place as a Jew in an anti-Semitic society (notwithstanding the award of a Stalin Prize in 1946), black-listed with Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian in Zhdanov’s 1948 cultural purge, he spent the rest of his life within Communist confinement. In 1956 heart trouble forced his retirement from the stage.

Heavy moustache, Russian-goatee, hair swept back, high forehead, visually Hans Keller-ish in his middle years - immediately recognisable, ‘his face […] unlike anyone else’s’ (Prokofiev). A stern but quiet cosmopolitan. Musically and politically non-conformist, antipathetic to proletarian/social realist order. Disinclined to play his music in public in the wake of the negative response to the aesthetic tone underlining the first of his three piano concertos - premiered under Coates in 1932. An artist drawn increasingly towards the unassailability of Bach and pure polyphony. The bachelor professor of the Moscow Conservatory (1922-62), ever working at his technique. Guardian and goldsmith of the Russian piano tradition in all its many-coloured guises - along with Flier, Gilels, Ginsburg, Goldenweiser, Igumnov, Milstein, Neuhaus, Oborin, Shatskes, Sofronitzki and Zak.

22 October. Liszt’s birthday, Feinberg’s death. To Dmitry Paperno (Notes of a Moscow Pianist, Portland: 1998) Artistry and mastery are inseparable ‘was the creative credo of this unique musician. October 1962, the Grand Hall of the Conservatory - the civil funeral of Samuil Evgenievich Feinberg. The last visual impression of him - the frozen noble features, the aquiline nose, imperial: Cardinal Richelieu. It seems only a lace jabot is missing for a complete resemblance.’

Aside from an eight-page article, ‘Style of Performance’, published in Soviet Music in February 1961, Feinberg’s essential writings and philosophies appeared only posthumously - principally a book Pianism as Art (Moscow: 1965, still to be translated fully into English), judged by some to be superior to Neuhaus’s Art of Piano Playing.

Beliefs bared to the bone. ‘Conscientious control of the fruits of the imagination’ is good. ‘Over-analyzed art where all the elements are deftly calculated and a theoretician is the sole tsar of the creative process’ is bad. Feinberg’s words are the clue to his mind and intuition*:

(a) ‘Transcription leads to deeper modifications that somewhat deviate from the exact adherence to the author’s original. Such changes are logically caused by the features of another instrument or instrumentation system. Thus, some changes in the text are unavoidable in a transcription. However, it is difficult to find an example of a successful intervention of a performer into the notes of a composer. The reality of concert performances and quite often of editions by famous pianists demonstrates that even a small deviation from the author’s text, addition of even one extra note into a chord, a change in figuration or other detail typically distort the composer’s intentions. Most frequently such "improvements" show that performer does not have the complete grasp of the author’s style.

(b) ‘The only area where a pianist has the right to introduce creative corrections to the author’s style is that of transcriptions and arrangements. However, even in this domain one should avoid unnecessary deviations, extraneous rhetoric of invented passages and ornaments that violate the composer’s style. The goal of a transcription is to express the character of the sound of the original by other means while retaining the style of the composition as much as possible. This is impossible to accomplish mechanically. One has to know well the possibilities of his instrument, as well as find creatively the adequate forms of presentation and new means of _expression to shed light on the composer’s intentions. The new avenues of presentation and _expression are needed solely in order to preserve, not break apart the very concept of the work.

(c) ‘No matter how we treat transcriptions and arrangements for other instruments it is impossible to deny that many examples of this genre have the right to exist and are themselves a special kind of creative interpretation. There is also no doubt that the border that separates composition and performance occupies to a certain extent the domain of the composer’s art.

(d) ‘If we imagine the entire path of a composition, from its origins to its completion in a real interpretation, we see a line passing from infinity, through the finite elements of the written score, and back to infinity. The original stimuli of art are infinitely complex, the sound elements that need to be written as notes are finite, and the number of interpretations that appear out of them is endless. Performance depends on an uncountable number of reasons and conditions. Performing style changes with the tastes and moods of the times, responding to new audiences' demands. Each new performer introduces special, individual qualities into his playing. Therefore it is extremely difficult to fix the character of any performance in strict and precise terms. The author himself envisions the inevitable variability of future performances of his composition. He equips his work with detailed directions to the performer, striving to avoid the total dissipation of his intentions in the numerous individual interpretations to come. However, two difficulties arise. The composer understands that restricting the performer's will and freedom of interpretation hinders the natural _expression of the artist-performer. [Then there is] the dichotomy between pre-imagined ideas of sound, and the realized work. This dichotomy treacherously awaits both the composer and the performer throughout the entire creative process. It is easy to make a mistake as to future interpretation while sitting at one’s desk, writing down and playing the work in one’s mind. Introducing tempo markings and shadings, the composer either recalls his own playing or imagines the ideal effort of a performer-interpreter. In both cases his imagination can mislead him, presenting only a partial rendering of the actual performing process - which depends on various factors: the creation of sound, overcoming technical difficulties, and most importantly - the possibilities and restrictions of a concrete instrumental style.’

(e) ‘The flow of an imagined sonic thread follows its own rules and principles, and is not necessarily identical to real sound. Imagined sounds are somehow lighter independent of the technical, material aspects in playing. Notes stressed in the author's mind may not need to be played any more loudly: it suffices for the composer to stress them in his own mind. An accent stressed in the realm of the imagination may not always be transferred adequately to performance.

(f) ‘Regarding the creative freedom of a pianist, one should underline the need for a musical image that is nurtured by the mental ear. Reading of the score should come before the production of sound. Each note should be first heard in the mind and only later realized. Then the pianist's playing becomes a creative act that turns the world of musical images into actual sound. The music lives before and after the actual sound, in constant development. The musical memory connects the preceding sounds with their later development, joining the future and the past, and creating the image of a whole musical form. The charm and poetry of a solo performance are in the fact that the transition from inner image to real sound is achieved by the individual will of an artist. The performer's art blends the inner life of a musical image and the external form of sound. The elastic reality of art and its shadow are synthesized in a united creative process.

(g) ‘The dynamics of artistic will play an enormous role in the development of a performer’s artistic self, but they should not be identified with thoughtlessness and a careless wish for on-stage elation. One should not merely live and feel in art, one has to live through a great deal and endure a great deal.

(h) ‘[An] evolving performing art is less durable than the composition itself. A fruit tree’s flowers come and go every spring, but the tree itself may live for centuries.

(i) ‘The calling of a performer, positioned between the realms of imagined sound and real sound, is to penetrate both worlds simultaneously. He cannot miss any shade of the music sounding in his mind while listening, carefully, to the actual sound elements he brings to life. A performer’s vision is not translucent to the outside world. It is fogged, as he follows the interior image and his attention concentrates on realizing his ideas. The violinist’s head turned toward the instrument expresses symbolically the essence of the performing craft.

(j) ‘It is commonly objected that the path of a creative artist is different from the usual conscious behavior of man, that it is built of unconscious, intuitive acts, like the path of a lawless comet in the "predictable circle of planets". However, much can be accounted for in the domain of artistic instinct: a constant, stable logic of artistic interactions can be found, just as a comet’s orbit can be marked on a map of the stars.

(k) ‘One of the greatest pianists [Anton Rubinstein] once remarked that "The pedal is the soul of the piano". Indeed, the pedal allows the piano to exhibit its most characteristic and pleasant sides. It is quite natural that the sounds that use the pedal are the most "pianistic". No instrument except for the harp possesses the ability to prolong the sound passively, on the vague border between the still sounding and already silent.

(l) ‘An artist himself is a carrier of the ideas and emotions of a composition. The personality of the artist-performer is united in the listener’s mind with the images emerging from the music. A performer, as an actor, is responsible for the joy and grief, love and hate, contemplation and elation - the whole live musical content. He concretizes it and makes it real in sound.

(m) ‘Soviet pianism […] is fed by the grand tradition of Russian pianism. […] the tradition of our pianism has been created first and foremost by the greatest Russian composers-performers. It suffices to recall such names as Balakirev, Liadov, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner, Prokofiev, Shostakovich - and we see clearly that the main stylistic accomplishments pass from generation to generation, from one great composer-pianist to another.

* translated Lenya Ryzhik, University of Chicago

Present evaluations concentrate largely on the calibre of Feinberg’s thinking and teaching, and the positive aspects of his work as composer and pianist. Allan Evans, for instance, writes: ‘When listening to Feinberg interpret Bach, Scriabin, Beethoven, or others, it is difficult to imagine that one pianist can adopt such varied approaches. Feinberg seemingly transformed himself to draw forth the unique musical language of each composer. His recording of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier […] is probably the most musically compelling and original version ever documented, as is his Scriabin and Liszt playing. He stands above all later Soviet pianists, except Sofronitsky, as a foremost musical mind and soul’. Carl Engel (Musical Quarterly, 1924) wondered if he might not be a ‘genius’. His performance of Scriabin’s mystic ‘blue’ Fourth Sonata was apparently regarded by the composer to be among the best he’d ever heard.

Admiring Feinberg, his musicality and brand of Busoni/Brendel/Gould intellect, is one thing. Liking what he represented, accepting the paradox that thinker and performer did not always meet at the same table, another. As a girl at the Conservatory, Nelly Akopian-Tamarina, last of the Goldenweiser line, found him in old age ‘aloof and unapproachable’, contrasting the relative accessibility of his peers. Over thirty years earlier, in 1927, in the nearest we have to a ‘visualisation’ of the man and his personality at that time, Prokofiev noted in his Soviet Diary†:

Friday 21 January. ‘Feinberg’s approach [to the Third Concerto] was so neurotic and mannered it almost turned the piece inside out. I wouldn’t have thought there was anything "neurotic" about my Third Concerto.

Saturday 22 January. ‘Feinberg was at [my] rehearsal. He knew I was playing my Third Concerto and came to listen jealously as to how I did it. This bothered me slightly […].

Sunday 23 January. ‘His playing is unbelievable, emotional in the most exhibitionist way: he breathes noisily through the nose, bends right down over the keyboard and makes a long-drawn issue of every note. In short he doesn’t play, he suffers. And it becomes embarrassing for the audience to watch him subjecting himself to such torture.

† translated Oleg Prokofiev, London: 1991

Not all will respond comfortably to this new Arbiter release. In underlining Feinberg’s neuroticism, the raw display of his emotions, Prokofiev had a point. From the playing before us he seems to have been something of a tidal ebb-and-flow pianist. An artist drawn to re-creation through individualized rhapsody and quasi extemporisation, his rhythm and timing dependent more on context and underlay than bar-line or stylistic consideration. Broadly speaking, his Bach preludes emphasize freedom of _expression and impulse, while his fugues are stricter - though, bending to contrapuntal and climactic tension, still not without a variability of tempo that can oscillate between free rein and no rein at all. Occasionally I find this inclination towards haste, conversely holding back, destabilizing and counter-productive, the apparent readiness to let the music run away, the lapses into rough, imperfect delivery or deliberated hiatus, unexpected. Fodder for the Brigade of Baroque Practitioners to be sarcastic. On the other hand the shaping and articulation of subjects and answers, the textural voicing, the seeing-through of lines, is evidently logical and thought through - paradoxically lean and muscular even when the surrounding environment is not.

Best among the three big fugal forays is probably the A minor (stereo). Liszt’s version of the G minor sets off at a brisk pace not fully sustained, the left-hand octave work under strain (at a duration of 9:15 compare with Wild’s 11:12). Feinberg’s posthumously printed transcription of the E minor organ Leipzig Prelude and Fugue (stereo) comes across with intermittent grandeur but in the end succumbs to restlessness (the playing times at 11:17, contrasting Roscoe at 13:24 - who at this speed achieves the steadier, more penetrating realization notwithstanding a touch of matronly starch in the Fugue). Of the two other Bach items, the three-part A major Sinfonia needs focus. But the D major Toccata coheres to splendid effect (exemplarily even scales, buoyant closing jig, at seventy-plus Feinberg’s fingers as super-drilled as ever) - once you accept that the final element of each tremolandi will be paused (and accented); that in the first Allegro the quavers will be at one base speed, the semiquavers at another (faster); and that each cadence (transient or final) will be broadened or spelt out.

Among the Romantic tracks, the Liszt Consolations, stylistically and expressively, spin a lost fairy tale. Delicate cameos of remembrance more flowingly ‘on the sleeve’ than the Rachmaninov Preludes - which inhabit an uneasy climate, maybe because of the anxieties of tempo and ‘over-pointing’ at play. Arresting though much of the subsidiary voicing maybe, the F sharp minor, for example, marked Largo, is taken at 2:41 (cf Gavrilov’s 4:38 or Stott’s 5:14), agitated by a fiercely (?exaggeratedly) accelerating middle section.

The opening seven bars of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade spell out many of the traits of the Feinberg manner. Emphasizing ‘con moto’ at the expense of ‘andante’, the music moves throughout in fits and starts, maintaining a broad barline or phrase-length pulse but through short, tense curves speeding up and slowing down. A nauseous rubato. Unquestionably the stentorian baritone entry at bars 90-92 (4:25) is as glorious as you get. But the clipped upbeats, bars 169ff, the frantic, bumpy stretto, bars 198ff, and the scramble of the closing pages are not.

Freneticism rides rampant in Scriabin’s single-movement Fifth Sonata of 1907. Objectively, this is a messy, even frightful, performance, more an approximation than a realization of the text. Feinberg hurtles home at a hectic 10:09 - breathing the high-altitude air of worlds removed from Ashkenazy (11:45), Sofronitzky, the composer’s son-in-law (12:12), or Gould (13:10). You won’t find much detail here, little attempt to ‘colour’ sound as Scriabin inferred through his markings. Dynamics, often reversed or ignored, are wild and willful; elsewhere so subtle as to elude the (presumed amateur) microphoning, sometimes so crude as to ‘clip into the red’ in showers of crackling distortion - made worse by 78 rpm acetate grooves long ago worn out.

Subjectively, on the other hand, it’s epic - a psychologically compelling journey into ‘excessive neurosis’. Feinberg grips the structure through violently opposed tempi. Despairingly slow, dramatically fast. Languido transmuted into lacrymoso, Allegro impetuoso con stravaganza/Presto translated into manic hallucinatory delirium. Inner voices metamorphosed into disquieting shapes emerging from and fading back into eery shrouds of smoke and occluded light. Misterioso passages disturbed into agitato ones. Prolonged rits, fevered accels. The fantastic become bizarre. Illusion above reality. The music’s Ecstasy superscription, the key to the re-creative vision:

I call you to life,

You hidden aspirations

You, buried in the dark depths

Of the creative spirit,

You timorous

Embryos of life

I bring you

Audacity!

Feinberg’s reasoning explains Feinberg’s way‡. In ‘The Composer and the Performer’, he refers revealingly to ‘the contradictions between Scriabin's performance markings and his own interpretations in concert recitals’. He speaks of ‘the dreamy images of Chopin, Schumann, and Scriabin that sometimes lie outside the boundaries of real sound’. And he asserts, from deep-founded conviction, that ‘the score of a composer is not a marching order "to be performed!"’ (my italics).

A performer must resolve the entire depth of the ideas contained there. How often carefully notated shadings, accents, tempo changes reveal not simply a positive characteristic of sound but rather the untold sides of the author's concept. How many directions we find in Schumann, Chopin, Scriabin, even Beethoven, that a pianist should follow not in a real sound but by addressing the subtlest hints to the imagination of a listener! The observations of composers performing their works are instructive; the phrasing in their own performances, following their own directions, often turns convex lines into concave, the prescribed tempo and dynamic markings are violated. Such substitutions may only be explained by the dominance of the author's imagination over the actual sound.

‘Refracting’ (his word) a composer’s ‘directions and shadings’ was the essence of Feinberg’s art. ‘Each shade should become an inseparable part of a particular organically united interpretation,’ he observes elsewhere (‘The Style’). ‘A composer’s instruction should not become a foreign impulse that simply makes a performer play sforzando at a given moment’.

[One must of] necessity distinguish between the text and the performing directions, as a non-critical and overly literal adherence to the latter may detach the music from the composer’s intentions […] an artist-performer often confesses to himself that in order to preserve a composer’s ideas one has to deviate from an exact execution of his directions.

One may assume that the [old] creative improvisation method denied in modern composing practice has moved completely into the domain of performing art. A true virtuoso performing compositions by others "must improvise". Many pianists consider a thoughtful, logical completion of a creative idea to be incompatible with inspired artistic playing. Firmness and conviction of the performer in his chosen way is often confused with hollow study. Such a "craftsman" performance is left to the "low" of the artistic world who lack true talent and genius.

‡ Ryzhik’s translation, adapted

Unknown and private recordings from Samuil Feinberg, legendary composer-pianist of the Soviet old guard.

Ates Orga

Some useful Feinberg links

Feinberg ‘The Composer and the Performer
Feinberg ‘The Style
Feinberg Interview, 23 January 1946
Powell, Jonathan, The End of an Era, International Piano, Vol. 5 No. 14, Winter 2001, pp. 36-42
Sirodeau, Christophe, biographical note, 2003
Sirodeau, Christophe, Complete solo Bach-Feinberg Hyperion transcriptions liner notes, 2004 [Log-in required]

 



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