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Legacy - The Collected Piano Recordings
Dinorah Varsi (piano)
Live, studio and filmed performances
Contents list at end of review
rec. 1945-2004
GENUIN GEN15353 [35CDs + 5 DVDs: approx. 50 hrs]

It is now two years since the death of the Uruguayan classical pianist Dinorah Varsi (1939-2013). Despite a sizeable commercial discography, very little has been made available on CD and, unjustly, she has never received the recognition she deserves. It is incomprehensible, for instance, that she wasn’t included in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century edition, issued by Philips in the 1990s, especially when one considers that it was for this company that she made some of her finest recordings. I got to know her playing from an obscure twofer of the complete Chopin Nocturnes, one of the finest cycles in the catalogue, in my view, and through her collaborations with the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux. Hats off to Genuin, who have released this impressive ‘Legacy’ box, featuring both live and studio recordings of works by 28 different composers, as well as 5 DVDs of filmed performances, much of this previously unreleased. The recordings span the years 1945-2004. I have lived with this set for the past three weeks, and what immediately strikes me is the formidable artistry and distinctive musicianship of this unique artist. Now it can be shared by all lovers of great pianism.

The edition comes with a large 112-page book (30.5 x 30.5cm) in German and English and printed on high quality paper. The text is interspersed with a cache of fascinating black and white photographs, either of the pianist herself, or of related items. Apparently Dinorah Varsi was eager to participate in Genuin’s project when it was first mooted, a decision having been made to incorporate both sound and word into a comprehensive edition of her work. Sadly she didn’t live to see the project fully realized – I am sure that she would have been thrilled with and enthusiastic about the outcome.
 
A biographical thread runs throughout the various sections. Her early years in Montevideo, Uruguay are well documented. Her initial piano studies began when she was four with Sarah Bourdillon de Santórsola. Her first recording was made a year later in 1945, a Chopin waltz, which can be heard in the set. Ten years later she played the Rachmaninov Second Concerto, which again is featured. In 1961 she made her American debut in Texas and Washington with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Paul Kletzki. Her early studies were with the American pianist Leonard Shure; she had wanted Rudolf Serkin. In 1961 she travelled to France to study at the École Normale de Musique de Paris, a leading conservatoire. She then had the good fortune to meet the Swiss/Hungarian pianist Géza Anda and from 1964 to 1966 attended his summer master-classes in Lucerne. In 1967 she won the Clara Haskil Competition, which launched her international performing and recording career. Other competition successes included a prize at the Geneva Competition, the Maria Canals Competition in Barcelona, and the Harriet Cohen International Music Award for Piano in London. In 1966 she set up home in Switzerland, later taking Swiss citizenship in 1982, whilst keeping her Uruguayan nationality.

As well as maintaining a busy concert career, Varsi spent a great deal of time teaching. From 1990 to 1996 she was a visiting professor at the Karlsruhe Musikhochschule. The book contains reminiscences from her many students. She viewed her pedagogical responsibilities seriously, careful not to produce clones of herself, but allowing each student to express his or her own individual personality. In the interviews with the pianist she speaks of her early technical problems and how she solved them. She discusses in detail how she strove to obtain her inimitable sound, with its myriad tonal shadings. Pianists will find of interest her thoughts on tonal design, harmonic progressions, modulation and chromatic changes when analysing a piece of music new to her repertoire. Discovering the architecture of a work was of fundamental importance, together with detailed consideration of interpretation, phrasing and dynamics. The book has some photographic reproductions of her scores containing the annotations she made. Added to this, she shares her thoughts on Mozart and the Chopin Études. I was amazed at her remarks concerning composers she dislikes. She found it difficult to identify with the music of Liszt, though there are two examples of her playing works by that composer in the live recitals, including a terrific performance of the First Piano Concerto. More surprising still is her antipathy and aversion towards Wagner who, she remarked, "wrote tasteless music".

The first thirteen CDs are dedicated to live performances the pianist made between 1945-2002. Varsi was six when she was taped playing the Chopin Waltz in A minor Op. 34 Nr 2. Whilst the sound quality is poor, as can only be expected, one can get a glimpse of the potential that was there even in one so young. By 1949 she was ten, and the Bach F minor Concerto is accompanied by orchestra. Despite the sonic limitations, the Largo is astonishing, and its expressive line calls to mind Edwin Fischer’s eloquent reading. In 1955, when she was fifteen, a Rachmaninov Second Concerto was taped, technically flawless; the audience responded enthusiastically. Her Rameau selections from 1983 and 1989 are rhythmically audacious and clearly articulated. Each piece is stylistically characterized. In ‘Le Rappel des Oiseaux’ the birds are graphically brought to life. A Haydn recital from Stuttgart in 1988 pairs a brace of sonatas with the F minor Variations. Whilst the sonatas are given convivial performances, the Variations begin too cautiously and, in the second major theme, she omits some of Haydn’s embellishments, which sounds odd. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 K 467 (2002) is imbued with Viennese charm and grace. There are two compelling performances of Beethoven piano concertos, their success partly attributable to the sensitive and responsive conductors who partner her. No. 4 in G major (1970) is given with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Paul Kletzki, and No. 5 in E flat ‘Emperor’ (1983) is with Lothar Zagrosek and the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien. Both are visionary interpretations, and the slow movement of No. 5 is breathtaking in its eloquence. There are several live airings of that composer’s piano sonatas, all convincing, with the exception of an Op. 110 from 1967. For me, the interpretation doesn’t get to the heart of the work and lacks a spiritual dimension. It also sounds rushed. A better performance is the one filmed in Tokyo in 2004, which is more probing. From the mid-nineties, with the Prague Symphony Orchestra under Petr Altrichter, come big-boned readings of the Brahms piano concertos. They are muscular, powerful and majestic, and a cumulative sweep runs throughout each. The slow movements are searching accounts of rapt intensity.

Chopin featured prominently in Varsi’s career, and she appears to have had a certain affection for both sets of Études. Her well-grounded and secure technique suited these pieces and there are examples of both sets in the live section. Op. 10 dates from 1982, but it is the Op. 25 from two years earlier that grabbed my attention. In No. 5 I love the way she shapes the left-hand melody against the accompanying arpeggios in the middle section. No. 7, in melancholic and wistful vein, is ardently expressed. The only disappointment is No. 1 Aeolian Harp, which is heavy-handed and lacking in poetry. The Piano Concerto No. 2 with Uri Segal and the WDR Symphony, Cologne is idiomatic, informed by elegance and refinement.

Schumann is another composer the pianist closely identified with. The Op. 17 Fantasie overflows with passion. The fiendish leaps at the end of the second movement, whilst not matching the pristine precision of Pollini, are technically adept. The third movement is heartfelt and sincere. She instinctively traverses the wonderful Davidsbündlertänze (1982), judging intuitively the ebb and flow of the music, and underlining its differing moods. Her Debussy is awash with colour and tonal shadings, and the Ravel Concerto (1971) with Zdeněk Mácal and the WDR Symphony, Cologne can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best. Considering she didn’t like Liszt, the First Concerto (1999) certainly doesn’t betray her true feelings. Most of the live recordings here are in exceptionally fine sound, with many almost of studio quality.

Considering the size, diversity and quality of her commercial discography, I am astonished that hardly any of this has been available previously on CD. Chopin forms a sizeable chunk. The Nocturnes (1986), which is the only recording I am familiar with, are all the more endearing for the warmth and expressiveness she invests In them. Op. 27 No. 2 in D flat major is a favourite of mine, with the unfettered limpidness of the filigree particularly alluring. The Ballades (1989), however, are disappointing. They could have done with a little more poetry; no. 3, especially, I found rather staid. Varsi’s Mazurkas (1985) have fluidity and freshness. The Introduction and Polonaise Op. 3 (1980) with Boris Pergamenschikow is a delight. There’s also a Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major by Brahms from the same session, both good to have included. All three piano sonatas were recorded. Varsi confronts all the technical difficulties head-on, and I admire the contrast she makes between the dramatic sections and the more lyrical ones. She includes the First Sonata Op. 4, a work I don’t particularly like as it doesn’t seem to rise to the same inspirational heights as the other two. The 24 Preludes, Op. 28 (1988) are conveyed with spontaneity and freshness, with a sense of music being created on the wing. The two concertos (1972) receive noble and passionate readings, sympathetically supported by Jan Krenz and the Orchestre Philharmoniqe de Monte-Carlo. The other composer well represented is Robert Schumann. The C major Fantasie (1994) is interpretatively very similar to the live airing of ten years earlier. Likewise there is duplication of live and studio recordings of Kreisleriana, Op. 16 from 1967 and 1969 respectively. Varsi brings boundless imagination and fantasy to the individual pieces. Rubato is never overdone, but always tastefully applied. Similar attributes can be found in her traversals of the Symphonic Études, Carnaval and the Humoreske. In fact, her Schumann playing constitutes some of the finest in the catalogue.

Varsi set down six of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and her take on them is compelling. I am drawn to the humanity and depth of her readings. Op. 2 No. 3 in C major and Op. 10. No. 3 are visionary interpretations, with a sense of inevitability. However, The Hammerklavier doesn’t work for me. Adopting Beethoven’s metronome markings, the performance sounds rushed; her tempi for the first three movements are marginally faster than Schnabel’s. Three Schubert Sonatas D664, D958 and D959 are included. One regrets the absence of D960. It’s disappointing that she omits the first movement exposition repeat of D958, as this adversely affects the balance. D959 is particularly well-managed, intelligently approached and with a formidable grasp of the architecture of the work. There’s a generous helping of Brahms late solo works. Varsi gets to the heart of each piece, shedding wisdom and insight into this marvellous music. Her sensitive use of the pedal enables her to confer on them a wealth of tonal shadings and colour. In the Handel Variations, she captures vividly the individual character of each.

The Rachmaninov Second and Tchaikovsky Concertos (1975) stand up well in a crowded field. The Debussy Preludes Book 1 (1991) showcase some deft impressionistic colouring and some sensitive expression. The Ravel Sonatina and Valse nobles et sentimentales are delicately rendered. The Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1981) is a stunning performance. It has a visceral quality, brims with energy and is rhythmically propulsive. Superbly recorded, clarity and definition are second to none - real edge of the seat stuff. With the Sonata no. 4 by Galina Ustvolskaya, Varsi makes one of her rare forays into contemporary music.

I have known for many years her collaborations with the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux (Studio 34), and they have been readily available on the Decca Eloquence label (442 8299). There’s a tangible rapport and understanding between the two artists, contributing significantly to the recordings' success. The Lekeu’s tighter tempi are more appealing to me, than the broader view Grumiaux took of the work in his earlier recording with Riccardo Castagnone.

The five filmed performances on DVD give a curious insight into Varsi the pianist. I tend to be put off by the histrionics and physical mannerisms that afflict some performers today. Whether it be swaying from side to side, gazing upwards for inspiration or face-pulling, it can be very distracting. One pianist I greatly admire I cannot bear to watch because of his goldfish impressions. What strikes me when watching these films is that Varsi is very undemonstrative, and plays within herself. With no extraneous movements, she’s a pleasure to watch.

Film 39 is a good place to start, with a portrait film from 1987, in German but with the option of English subtitles. The pianist is filmed rehearsing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 16 in D major in Stuttgart. Then we see her admiring Giacometti sculptures and revealing the importance of art in her life. We then cut to the studio, where she is recording the Chopin Preludes. Her meticulous attention to detail is an inspiration. At home she practises Beethoven Op. 101, then it’s off to Hamburg for master-classes, where she puts her students through their paces. Moving on, there are filmed performances of Mozart’s Concerto No. 21, the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody and the Mendelssohn G minor Concerto, all exceptionally well filmed with a variety of camera angles. I was especially taken by Schumann’s Introduction and Allegro. It’s a captivating performance of a rarely heard work. Also included is a studio recording of this from 1976. There’s a film of a piano recital set in a studio in 1992. This offers fascinating close-ups of the pianist’s hands, and imaginative use of lighting to highlight the moods of the pieces. Another gem is an early performance from 1973 of the Schumann Fantasiestücke Op. 12, which is delivered with much poetry and feeling. The only disappointment is a live concert from a university chapel in Tokyo (Film 40). Whilst Varsi’s playing gives me no cause for concern, the venue is exceptionally drab, with the camera static – panning in for the playing and out for the applause.
 
The CDs, DVDs and book are housed in a large, beautifully produced deluxe presentation box: 32x32cm. It is laudable that Varsi’s legacy has now been made available, in this age where reissues of back catalogue at an affordable price is in vogue. This project has clearly been a labour of love for Genuin, and this release will be enthusiastically welcomed by aficionados of great pianism.

It will prove a valuable and worthwhile investment.

Stephen Greenbank

Contents List

live 1
Frédéric Chopin Valse a-Moll op.34 Nr.2 1945
Johann Sebastian Bach Konzert für Klavier und Streicher Nr.5 f-Moll BWV 1056 1949
Sergei Rachmaninow Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.2 c-Moll op.18 1955

live 2
Robert Schumann Kreisleriana op.16 1967
Ludwig van Beethoven Sonate Nr.31 As-Dur op.110 1967
Franz Schubert Sonate a-Moll D 845 1967

live 3
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Adagio h-Moll KV 540 1980
Eine kleine Gigue G-Dur KV 574 1980
Johannes Brahms Intermezzi op.117 1980
Béla Bartók Sonate Sz 80 1980
Frédéric Chopin Etudes op.25 1980

live 4
Johann Sebastian Bach Toccata e-Moll BWV 914 1982
Robert Schumann Davidsbündlertänze op.6 1982
Frédéric Chopin Etudes op.10 1982

live 5
Jean-Philippe Rameau Pičces de Clavecin: 1983
La Joyeuse
Musette en Rondeau
Tambourin
Les Trois Mains
Le Lardon
Les Tendres Plaintes
Le Rappel des Oiseaux
Johann Sebastian Bach
Ouvertüre nach Französischer Art h-Moll BWV 831 1983
Italienisches Konzert F-Dur BWV 971 1983
Konzert für Klavier und Streicher Nr.5 f-Moll BWV 1056 1983

live 6
Joseph Haydn Sonate D-Dur Hob XVI:37 1986
Ludwig van Beethoven Sonate Nr.17 d-Moll op.31 Nr.2 1986
Frédéric Chopin Sonate Nr.2 b-Moll op.35 1986
Claude Debussy
Préludes:
Les fées sont d‘exquises danseuses 1986
Minstrels
La fille aux cheveux de lin
Général Lavine – excentrique
Feux d‘artifice
Children‘s Corner: Golliwogg’s Cakewalk (Zugabe)
Manuel de Falla Der Dreispitz: Farruca (Zugabe) 1986
Frédéric Chopin Mazurka B-Dur op.7 Nr.1 (Zugabe) 1986

live 7
Jean-Philippe Rameau Pičces de Clavecin:
La Joyeuse 1989
Les Trois Mains
Les Tendres Plaintes
Le Rappel des Oiseaux
Ludwig van Beethoven Sonate Nr.12 As-Dur op.26 1989
Frédéric Chopin
Nocturne F-Dur op.15 Nr.1 1989
Nocturne Fis-Dur op.15 Nr.2 1989
Nocturne Des-Dur op.27 Nr.2 1989
Nocturne H-Dur op.62 Nr.1 1989
Nocturne c-Moll op.48 Nr.1 1989
Claude Debussy Pour le Piano 1989
Frédéric Chopin Prélude e-Moll op.28 Nr.4 (Zugabe) 1989
Prélude fis-Moll op.28 Nr.8 (Zugabe) 1989

live 8
Joseph Haydn
Variationen f-Moll (Sonata) Hob XVII:6 1988
Sonate F-Dur Hob XVI:23 1988
Sonate Es-Dur Hob XVI:52 1988
Robert Schumann Fantasie C-Dur op.17 1983

live 9
Frédéric Chopin Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.2 f-Moll op.21 1973
Maurice Ravel Konzert für Klavier und Orchester G-Dur 1971
Franz Liszt Bearbeitung von Präludium & Fuge a-Moll BWV 543 von Johann Sebastian Bach 1980

live 10
Ludwig van Beethoven Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.4 G-Dur op.58 1970
Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.5 Es-Dur op.73 (Emperor) 1983

live 11
Sergei Rachmaninow Rhapsodie über ein Thema von Paganini op.43 für Klavier und Orchester 1983
Franz Liszt Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.1 Es-Dur 1999
Béla Bartók Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.3 Sz 119 1971

live 12
Johannes Brahms Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.2 B-Dur op.83 1994
Frédéric Chopin Variationen über „Lŕ ci darem la mano“ op.2 für Klavier und Orchester 1980

live 13
Johannes Brahms Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.1 d-Moll op.15 1993
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.21 C-Dur KV 467 2002

studio 14
Johannes Brahms Fantasien op.116 1996
Intermezzi op.117 1994
Klavierstücke op.118 1994
Klavierstücke op.119 1995

studio 15
Johannes Brahms Rhapsodien op.79 1994
Variationen und Fuge über ein Thema von Händel op.24 1995
Sonate Nr.2 F-Dur op.99 für Violoncello und Klavier 1980

studio 16
Johannes Brahms Klavierstücke op.76 1971
Rhapsodien op.79 1971
Robert Schumann
Sonate Nr.2 g-Moll op.22 1969
Introduktion und Allegro appassionato op.92 1976 für Klavier und Orchester

studio 17
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonate Nr.1 f-Moll op.2 Nr.1 1986
Sonate Nr.3 C-Dur op.2 Nr.3 1987
Sonate Nr.7 D-Dur op.10 Nr.3 1987

studio 18
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonate Nr.18 Es-Dur op.31 Nr.3 1987
Sonate Nr.28 A-Dur op.101 1987
Sonate Nr.29 B-Dur op.106 (Hammerklaviersonate) 1980

studio 19
Frédéric Chopin
Sonate Nr.2 b-Moll op.35 1993
Sonate Nr.3 h-Moll op.58 1989
Sonate Nr.1 c-Moll op.4 1989

studio 20
Frédéric Chopin Mazurken op.6, op.7, op.17, op.24, op.30, op.33 1985

studio 21
Frédéric Chopin Mazurken op.41, op.50, op.56, op.59, op.63, op.67, op.68 1985

studio 22
Frédéric Chopin Nocturnes op.9, op.15, op.27, op.32, op.37, op.48 1986

studio 23
Frédéric Chopin
Nocturnes op.55, op.62, op.posth.72 Nr.1 1986
Ballade g-Moll op.23 1989
Ballade F-Dur op.38 1989
Ballade As-Dur op.47 1989
Ballade f-Moll op.52 1989
Introduction et Polonaise brillante C-Dur op.3 für Violoncello und Klavier 1980

studio 24
Frédéric Chopin
Impromptu As-Dur op.29 1988
Impromptu Fis-Dur op.36 1988
Impromptu Ges-Dur op.51 1988
Fantaisie-Impromptu cis-Moll op.66 (Fassung nach der Eigenschrift) 1988
Préludes op.28 1988
Fantaisie f-Moll op.49 1987

studio 25
Frédéric Chopin
Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.1 e-Moll op.11 1972
Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.2 f-Moll op.21 1972
Scherzo Nr.3 cis-Moll op.39 1971

studio 26
Sergei Rachmaninow Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.2 c-Moll op.18 1975
Pjotr Iljitsch Tschaikowsky Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.1 b-Moll op.23 1975

studio 27
Franz Schubert Sonate A-Dur D 664 1989
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.16 D-Dur KV 451 1987
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Rondo brillant Es-Dur op.29 für Klavier und Orchester 1976
Fanny Hensel Lieder für das Pianoforte: op.2 Nr.2, op.6 Nr.2, op.6 Nr.3, op.6 Nr.4, op.8 Nr.1, op.8 Nr.3, op.2 Nr.4 1984

studio 28
César Franck Prélude, Choral et Fugue 1995
Claude Debussy Préludes: Premier livre 1991
Galina Ustwolskaja Sonate Nr.4 1993

studio 29
Robert Schumann
Sinfonische Etüden op.13 1984
Carnaval op.9 1993
Franz Schubert Sonate c-Moll D 958 1977

studio 30
Robert Schumann
Kreisleriana op.16 1969
Fantasiestücke op.12 1970
Humoreske op.20 1979

studio 31
Robert Schumann Fantasie C-Dur op.17 1994
Franz Schubert Sonate A-Dur D 959 1982

studio 32
Claude Debussy Préludes: Deuxičme livre 1993
Maurice Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales 1996; Sonatine fis-Moll 1970

studio 33
Isaac Albéniz
Navarra 1970
Suite Iberia: El puerto, Evocación, El Albaicín, Triana 1987
Alberto Ginastera Sonate Nr.1 op.22 1995
Béla Bartók Sonate für zwei Klaviere und Schlagzeug Sz 110 1981

studio 34
Guillaume Lekeu Sonate für Violine und Klavier G-Dur 1974
Eugčne Ysa˙e Ręve d’enfant op.14 für Violine und Klavier 1974
Henri Vieuxtemps Ballade et Polonaise op.38 für Violine und Klavier 1974
Manuel de Falla Noches en los jardines de Espańa für Klavier und Orchester 1972

talk 35 Interviews
Berliner Festwochen: Dinorah Varsi im Gespräch mit Dr. Ursula Klein 1986
Dinorah Varsi erklärt und spielt aus den Préludes op.28 von Frédéric Chopin 1978

film 36
Robert Schumann Fantasiestücke op.12 1973
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.1 g-Moll op.25 1984
Robert Schumann Introduktion und Allegro appassionato op.92 für Klavier und Orchester 1984

film 37
Meisterkurs .. bewegt mich, sagt mir etwas… 1990
Frédéric Chopin Etudes op.10 1990

film 38
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr.21 C-Dur KV 467 1995
Sergei Rachmaninow Rhapsodie über ein Thema von Paganini op.43 für Klavier und Orchester 1993; Clavierissimo I: 1997
Jean-Philippe Rameau Le Rappel des Oiseaux (aus: Pičces de Clavecin)
Robert Schumann In der Nacht (aus: Fantasiestücke op.12)
Frédéric Chopin Nocturne Fis-Dur op.15 Nr.2
Fanny Hensel Il Saltarello Romano (aus: Lieder für das Pianoforte op.6)
Frédéric Chopin Prélude Des-Dur op.28 Nr.15
Claude Debussy Feux d‘artifice (aus: Préludes, Deuxičme Livre)

film 39
Portrait Dinorah Varsi: Portrait einer Pianistin 1987
Clavierissimo II: 1997
Ludwig van Beethoven Bagatelle C-Dur op.33 Nr.2
Frédéric Chopin Etude a-Moll op.25 Nr.11
Clara Schumann Scherzo d-Moll op.10
Maurice Ravel Toccata (aus: Le tombeau de Couperin)
Frédéric Chopin Etude As-Dur op.25 Nr.1
Alexander Skrjabin Etude dis-Moll op.8 Nr.12
Alberto Ginastera Danza del gaucho matrero (aus: Danzas Argentinas op.2)

film 40
Johann Sebastian Bach
Präludium und Fuge Nr.9 E-Dur BWV 854 2004
Präludium und Fuge Nr.10 e-Moll BWV 855 2004
Präludium und Fuge Nr.11 F-Dur BWV 856 2004
Ludwig van Beethoven Sonate Nr.31 As-Dur op.110 2004
Frédéric Chopin Préludes op.28 2004; Valse Des-Dur op.64 Nr.1 (Zugabe) 2004

 

 




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