Here's news about high-definition video recordings of opera, ballet, classical music, plays, fine-art documentaries, and painting. I call these recordings "HDVDs." In the journal below are independent (and hard-to-find critical) reports on hundreds of HDVDs. Pick the best titles for your excelsisphere.

June 28. I just posted a story on the RSC Henry V, which completes its production of the entire Henriad. It's been out some time, but I finally got around to reviewing the Regio di Parma Rigoletto with Demuro, Nucci, and Machaidze (who is gorgeous in this.) It's probably the best Rigoletto we have now, but Arthaus also has a contender at a super-budget price.

Bryan Balmer just posted a B grade for a Verdi Messa da Requiem performed by the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and shot by Michael Beyer. I recently posted a rare F grade for two Brahms pieces performed by Nelsons and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and also shot for video by Michael Beyer. It's nice to give a good grade to Beyer after all the problems he has had with DVDitis.

Bryan Balmer recently contributed a new review of Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle playing Bruckner Symphony No. 8. Bryan also recently posted a review of the Beethoven Missa solemnis with Harnoncourt and the Concertgebouw. This is probaby the best recording of Missa solemnis ever made in any format. Following that, I posted a review of the Missa solemnis performed by the Dresden Staatskapelle under Thielemann. This was a great performance also, but the recording suffers from DVDitis.

Help up stamp out DVDitis! But how do you spot the symptoms of this dread disease?  Check out the new Wonk Worksheet that lets you play doctor! Fill one out, send it to us, and maybe go viral!

There's too much DVDitis out there infecting our classical music Blu-rays. But there are exceptions. Here's a list of the best classical music HDVDs, all with 96kHz/24-bit sound, no DVDitis, and mostly grades of A+:

  1. Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 from NHK with the Berlin Philharmonic under Ozawa
  2. Mahler Symphony No. 1 from NHK with the Saito Kinen Orchestra under Ozawa
  3. Brahms Symphony No. 2 from NHK with the Saito Kinen Orchestra under Ozawa
  4. Schumann Piano Concerto & Bruckner Symphony 9 from NHK with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under  Haitink.
  5. Mozart Symphony 35 & Haydn Cello Concerto from NHK with Mito Chamber Orchestra under Ozawa
  6. Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 and Midsummer Night's Dream Music from NHK with Mito Chamber Orchestra under Ozawa
  7. Tango! from Challenge Records---Piazzolla tango nuevo by the Isabelle van Keulen Ensemble
  8. Winterreise from Challenge Records with tenor Prégardien and Gees on piano
  9. Mutter Live---The Club Album from DG. (This only got a" B+")
  10. Capuleti e i Montecchi opera from San Francisco Opera and EuroArts
  11. Porgy and Bess opera from San Francisco Opera and EuroArts
  12. Mozart Chamber Music from AIX Records with the Dover Quartet + guest artists. (This one got an "A")

The table below shows typical metrics for the best NHK symphony HDVDs mentioned above and can serve as benchmarks for diagnosing DVDitis:

Title Pace   Supershots   Conductor Shots
Tchaikovsky Symphony 6    14.5 seconds per clip   38%   24%
Mahler Symphony 1 9 seconds per clip   21%   11%
Brahms Symphony 2 11 seconds per clip   39%   13%
Bruckner Symphony 9 13.5 seconds per clip   34%   20%
Mito Chamber Orchestra 11 seconds per clip   40+%   18%


A good HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average (longer the better). 20 to 40% (higher is better) of the clips should be large-scale supershots. Conductor shots should be less than 20% (way less really) of all the clips.
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Thursday
Jun302016

The Rape of Lucretia

Britten The Rape of Lucretia opera to libretto by the Ronald Duncan. Directed 2015 by Fiona Shaw at Glyndebourne. Stars Christine Rice (Lucretia), Allan Clayton (Male Chorus), Kate Royal (Female Chorus), Duncan Rock (Tarquinius), Matthew Rose (Collatinus), Michael Sumuel (Junius), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Bianca), and Louise Alder (Lucia). Leo Hussain conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Leader Pieter Schoeman). Set design by Michael Levine; costume design by Nicky Gillibrand; lighting design by Paul Anderson; film direction by François Roussillon; produced by George Bruell. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Thursday
Jun302016

Othello

Shakespeare Othello play. Directed 2015 by Iqbal Khan at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Stars Hugh Quarshie (Othello), Lucian Msamati (Iago), Joanna Vanderham (Desdemona), Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Cassio), David Ajao (Montano), Nadia Albina (Duke of Venice), Scarlett Brookes (Bianca), James Corrigan (Roderigo), Ayesha Dharker (Emilia) Eva Feiler (Citizen of Venie), Owen Findlay (Gentlemaand n of Cyprus), Guy Hughes (Soldier), Gwilym Lloyd (Gratiano), Rina Mahoney (Citizen of Venice/Messenger), Ken Nwosu (Gentleman of Cyprus), Brian Protheroe (Brabantio), Jay Saighal (Gentleman of Cyprus/Herald), and Tim Samuels (Lodovico). Set and lighting design by Ciaran Bagnall; costume design by Fotini Dimou; music by Akintayo Akinbode; sound by Andrew Franks; movement by Diane Alison-Mitchell; fights by Kevin McCurdy; screen direction by Robin Lough; produced by John Wyver. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Monday
Jun272016

Henry V

Shakespeare Henry V play. Directed 2015 by Gregory Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Stars for the English: Oliver Ford Davies (Chorus), Alex Hassell (King Henry V), Dale Mathurin (Bedford/Bates), Daniel Abbott (Gloucester/Monsieur le Fer), Jim Hooper (Canterbury/Erpingham), Nicholas Gerard-Martin (Bishop of Ely/Orléans), Sean Chapman (Exeter), Andrew Westfield (Westmorland/MacMorris/Court), Christopher Middleton (Warwick/Nym), Keith Osborn (Scroop), Simon Yadoo (Cambridge/Jamy/Michael Williams), Obioma Ugoala (Grey/Gower), Joshua Richards (Bardolph/Fluellen), Anthony Byrne (Pistol), Sarah Parks (Mistress Quickly), and Martin Bassindale (Boy). Stars for the French: Simon Thorp (King of France), Jane Lapotaire (Queen Isobel), Robert Gilbert (Dauphin), Jennifer Kirby (Katherine), Leigh Quinn (Alice), Keith Osborn (Montjoy), Sam Marks (Constable of France), Christopher Middleton (Governer of Harfleur), and Evelyn Miller (Rambures/Lady-in-Waiting). Features the musicians Helena Raeburn (soprano), Max Gittings (woodwind), Samantha Norman (violin), Nick Lee (guitar), Andre Stone-Fewings (trumpet), Chris Sedden (trumpet), Ian Foster (tuba), James Jones (percussion), and Bruce O'Neil (keyboard). Designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis; lighting by Tim Mitchell; music by Paul Englishby, sound by Martin Slavin; movement by Michael Ashcroft; fights by Terry King; screen direction by Robin Lough; produced for screen by John Wyver. Package includes a Director's Commentary and other valuable extra features. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio. Grade: A+

Henry V is the last play in the Henriad, a set of 4 Shakespeare plays beginning with Richard II and continuing with Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2. If you have worked your way through the RSC's Blu-ray recordings of the first 3 plays in the Henriad, you will be delighted to see that many of the characters from the earlier plays that also appear in Henry V are played by the actors you already know. Foremost among these is Alex Hassell, who we first meet as the immature and dissolute Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1 and who will now prove his mettle as King Henry V, commander in war. Alas, there are too many moving parts in Henry V to make room for the bloated Knight Falstaff, whose sad death occurs in this play off stage. 

Burying Falstaff helped Shakespeare clear the boards for action, but the Bard was still faced with a daunting problem: how does one portray on a (primitive) stage the crossing of an ocean, a siege, forced marches of maneuver to fight a battle ultimately won by archery troops defeating a calvary charge, a victory homecoming, and, finally, the wooing of a queen in a foreign language? Well, Shakespeare relied on himself and a new character called "Chorus." Below we see Oliver Ford Davies as Chorus opening the play. The "wooden O" he mentions is the round Globe Theater constructed with timbers. "Casques" are battle helmets. Chorus asks: how can I do a war story here? The answer is by inspiring the imaginations of the members of the audience with prose and poetry from Chorus. And so 6 times Chorus enters the stage to tell the audience where they are, are going, or could have been. There's no proof, but also little doubt, that when Henry V was originally staged, William Shakespeare himself, like Henry V marching on France, came on stage as Chorus to regale. Like Henry V, Shakespeare was determined to conquer:

Henry V was descended from a French Queen. He had a reasonable case that he could be the King of France just as well as he was King of England. Below we see Harry on the throne flanked by ranking advisors. All listen to the Lord of Canterbury deliver his judgment on the legality of the King's claim:

But there already was a King of France with a son, the Dauphin. The Dauphin, inspired by the bad reputation of Prince Hal, sent Henry V an insulting gift of tennis balls. The young King could not afford to be seen abused this way in front of his Court: this meant war!

If we're going to war, who might some of the combatants be? Well, below are, from left to right, our old friends Pistol (still played by Antony Byrne), Mistress Quickly (now played by newcomer Sarah Parks), and Bardolph (still played by Joshua Richards). On the far right is a new recruit named Nym, played by Christopher Middleton:

The campaign opens with the siege by land of the Norman port of Harfleur. Harry needed the port to insure his resupply from home. The town wall has been breached. If the English troops can defeat a counterattack, Harfleur must surrender---hence the famous lines below:

Throughout the play Shakespeare has opportunity to say something about many different aspects of war. I picked the image below mainly, however, for the striking image of Hassell's face as he leads his men, many of whom were impressed, into battle:

And what's going on inside invaded France? Well, Princess Katherine has decided to learn some English. In one of the most precious and funny scenes that I can remember in all literature, "Kate" learns 9 English words, some of which sound like certain indecent words in French that she's not supposed to know at all:

 

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Monday
Jun272016

Rigoletto

Verdi Rigoletto opera to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Directed by Stefano Vizioli in 2008 (after the 1987 Pierluigi Samaritani  production) at the Teatro Regio di Parma Verdi Festival. Stars Francesco Demuro (Duke of Mantova), Leo Nucci (Rigoletto), Nino Machaidze (Gilda), Marco Spotti (Sparafucile), Stefanie Irányi (Maddalena), Katarina Nikolic (Giovanna), Roberto Tagliavini (Count of Monterone), Orazio Mori (Marullo), Mauro Buffoli (Matteo Borsa), Ezio Maria Tisi (Count di Ceprano), and Scilla Cristiano (Countess di Ceprano).  Andrea Battistoni conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio Di Parma (Chorus Master Martino Faggini). Set and costumes originally designed (1987) by Pierluigi Samaritani and revised by Alessandro Ciammarughi; lighting by Franco Marri; directed for video by Andrea Bevilacqua. Released 2013, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B+

Leo Nucci (Rigoletto) almost has had a lock on singing the hunchback. Here he's shown with Count Monterone's daughter (a mute and uncredited role). Monterone complains that his daughter has been traduced. But, on the other hand, director Vizioli doesn't picture the daughter exactly as a vestal virgin: 

And Vizioli's Rigoletto is nastier than the norm. He earns the curse he receives from the aggrieved father:

As a man, I have a hard time seeing why women fall to all fours panting in the presence of some of the lousiest men---while they ignore the noble and good men (like I was) who court them. But even I can see why Gilda (Nino Machaidz) would fall for this Francesco Demuro as Duke of Mantova:

The Duke reports that Gilda could have ruined everything for everybody. She . . .

Andrea Bevilacqua provides a ton of dramatic close-ups---next below is Marco Spotti as Sparafucile, the hit man:

Is Rigoletto thinking of assassinating Monterone? Not really, but it's always a good idea to know an assassin:

 

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Sunday
Jun262016

Verdi Messa da Requiem

Verdi Messa da Requiem concert. In 2013, Mariss Jansons conducts the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Chorus (Chorus Master Michael Gläzer) at the Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein. Soloists are Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Marina Prudenskaja (mezzo-soprano), Saimir Pirgu (tenor), and Orlin Anastassov (bass). Video was directed by Michael Beyer. Released 2014, the music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling; the disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B

Mariss Jansons

Krassimira Stoyanova Left and Marina Prudenskaja on the Right

Saimir Pirgu Left and Orlin Anastassov Right

This Verdi Messa da Requiem was a Gramophone "Editor's Choice" selection for the month of January 2015. Mike Ashman at page 75 praises Jansons' "operatic" approach to the work showing "a good sense of theatre." He also praised the video in its DVD version stating, "It's atmospherically filmed without encompassing an architectural tour of the venue and points intelligently to vocal and instrumental leads."  H'm, this would prepare me to find a pretty grim case of DVDitis in the Blu-ray; instead, this disc turned out to be a pleasant surprise!  A gripping and dramatic performance was matched by thoughtful and careful filming by director Michael Beyer.

For more on the dread disease "DVDitis" see our special article on how to make a decent video of a large orchestra for viewing on HD TV.  Briefly, DVDitis is a malady that afflicts Blu-ray videos with content that is only appropriate for a DVD. We use a Wonk Worksheet to accurately diagnose DVDitis in a Blu-ray recording. For more information about all this and the abbreviations used below, refer to our Wonk Worksheet form and Wonk Worksheet Instructions):

Following are statistics, obtained using a Wonk Worksheet, on the various types of video clips found in subject Verdi Messa da Requiem video:

Conductor = 87
C/B = 26 (conductor over the backs of musicians)
Soloist(s) not realistic = 101 (the soloists here are the 4 star singers)
*Soloist(s) realistic = 105
Solos, S§, SG, & misc. small-scale = 188 (small-scale shots that are needed for DVDs)
*L§, LG, & misc. large-scale = 34 (large-scale shots tend to look good only in HDVDs)
*PO = 23 (part-orchestra)
*WO = 7 (whole-orchestra)
IO = 22 (instrument only)
*Other high value = 4 (here “architectural” shots)

There's a total of 597 clips over 87 minutes of music in this video, which yields a pace of 8.7 seconds per clip. Supershots (marked above with an *) amount to 29% of the total clips, while conductor shots come in at 19%.   51% of soloist shots are realistic.

We have established the following rules-of-thumb to determine when a Blu-ray with star soloists is afflicted by DVDitis:

A good symphony HDVD with star soloists should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average. 20 to 40% of the clips should be large-scale "supershots." TatL conductor shots should be less than 20% of the clips in the video. Over 50% of soloist shots should be realistic.

This video passes 3 of the 4 tests. The only test it flunks is the pace test.  But the pace of 8.7 seconds per clip is closer to the pace of a good HDVD (10 seconds per clip and longer) than to the 5 seconds per clip often encountered in DVDs.

Sound quality is good. There is excellent presence to the bass drum during hair-raising moments such as opening of the Dies Irae!  As you can see from all our screenhots, Beyer's picture quality is gorgeous with state-of-the-art video resolution and natural color saturation. Further Beyer has mastered the art of achieving close-to-perfect focus throughout the entire relevant depth-of-field-of-focus.

If you are comparing this review to the Blu-ray dics released by Decca of Barenboim performing Messa da Requiem with the Teatro alla Scala, I will offer the following comments:

  • Similar to Barenboim, there are no Latin subtitles included in this Blu-ray.  Subtitles in English, German, French and Korean appear to be adequate.  (Personally, I am not in the habit of watching subtitles in concert works because to me  they distract from the music.)
  • The Barenboim performance, directed by Andy Sommer, contains 52 cuts in the 2:28 duration of the opening of the Dies Irae.  This present Beyer production contains 26 cuts in the same section (over a duration of 2:25 due to an ever so slightly quicker tempo). This illustrates why the pace in subject title is so much slower and better than in the Barenboim recording. Well, 26 cuts in the Dies Irae is still too many, but it's a step in the right direction!
  • The Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein is relatively small. The big orchestra with chorus is cramped, and this results in cluttered views of musicians and choristers. I did not see many video errors. However, both the large-scale and small-scale shots in this title are perhaps more utilitarian and “not as pretty” as the pictures you would get in in larger concert halls. (See also another Barenboim title I recently reviewed, Bruckner Symphony No. 8, shot by Andreas Morell at the Berlin Philharmonie with its large stage. Morell captures many images showing the exquisite symmetry of motion that exits in a symphony orchestra performance. This would be too much to hope for at the Golden Hall.)

Now lets turn to screen shots to illustrate the dry text that one contends with in our symphony reviews. We start with 2 architectural shots of the beautiful Golden Hall:

 

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Saturday
Jun252016

Brahms Serenade No. 2 and Symphony No. 2

Brahms Serenade No. 2 and Symphony No. 2 concert. Features three works by Brahms: Serenade No. 2, Alto Rhapsody, and Symphony No. 2. Andris Nelsons conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Bavarian Radio Choir in 2014 at the Lucerne Summer Festival (KKL Concert Hall). Soloist is Sara Mingardo (alto). Gerarld Häussler was Chorus Master; video directed by Michael Beyer; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D- blended grade for the whole disc

Richard Osborne, writing in the July 2015 Gramophone (page 30) offers caustic condemnation of this title saying that "both the serenade and symphony fall prey to Nelson's slow and self-indulgent way with Brahms's music." He also complains that these are "performances to seen rather than heard." I think he must be referring to Nelson's hyperactive style of movement and making of faces. John Quinn, writing for MusicWeb International, liked the performance better than Osborne, but even Quinn squirms repeatedly about what he deems over-expansiveness by Nelsons. I'll say that debating the performance is academic because shaky sound recording and miserable video content cripple this disc beyond cure.

Serenade No. 2

Brahms wrote this serenade at age 26 as a warm up for catching up with Beethoven. If you like this piece, it means you are a classical music fan to the core. PQ is fine. SQ is weak with "tubby" bass and murkiness in miking and mixing. I ran the numbers on video content and you can see my notes here on a completed Wonk Worksheet. Next below is  a summary of the kinds of video clips in the Serenade (for explanation of the abbreviations and process below see our Wonk Worksheet form and Wonk Worksheet Instructions):

Conductor = 64
C/B = 27
Solos, S§, SG, & misc. small-scale = 212
*L§, LG, & misc. large-scale = 6
*PO = 13
*WO = 3
IO = 6
Other low value = 3 “anthill” shots between movements

There's a total of 334 clips over 35+ minutes of music, which yields a pace of 6.6 seconds per clip. Supershots (those marked * above) amount to only 7% of the total clips, while the 138 conductor shots come in at 27% of the total.

We have established the following rules-of-thumb to identify a Blu-ray with DVDitis:

A good symphony HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average (the longer the better). 20 to 40% of the clips should be large-scale "supershots." Conductor shots should be less than 20% of the clips in the video (way less really).

This video fails on all 3 tests, and has near-terminal DVDitis.

Now let’s look at some screen shots. The first obligation of the video director is to give the home viewer a whole-orchestra (WO) orientation shot at the beginning of the video. This Beyer fails to do. The initial WO shot should fill the screen with all the musicians so the home viewer can easily figure out where all the instruments are located. The shot below is not a whole-orchestra shot because the orchestra doesn't fill the screen. The resolution at this range is too fuzzy for the viewer to see much. So here's a pop quiz: can you figure out from the image below which instruments were cut from the orchestra by Brahms in his score? Good luck. (We call this kind of image an "architectural shot" or an "anthill" view of the orchestra.)

There are 212 images of single players or small groups like the next two screenshots:

Then there are no less than 91 shots of the conductor. 64 clips just show Nelsons, who makes more faces during a single concert than Lang Lang has made in his entire career:

 

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Jun232016

Karajan, Maestro for the Screen

Karajan, Maestro for the Screen documentary by Georg Wübbolt. This 52-minute film, produced by Bernhard Fleischer, explores Herbert von Karajan's long interest in making motion picture films of classical music performances to be shown in movie theaters and over TV. There is also a 32-minute bonus performance (directed by François Reichenbach and never released before) of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Suite (Overture) No. 2 in B minor (BWV 1067) by the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Karajan. Original language German; subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese. Released 2015, disc has stereo sound (much of which started as mono). Grade: Help!

This documentary is mostly (or entirely) legacy material that does not meet the normal standards (for HD video and surround sound) to be reviewed here. We make an exception for this title because it is a documentary about the history of fine-arts video. It probably will mesh well with the Herbert von Karajan 1965-1966 Movie Documentary discussed extensively on this website.

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Thursday
Jun232016

The Left-Hander

Rodion Shchedrin The Left-Hander opera to libretto by the composer. Directed 2013 by Alexei Stepanyuk at the Mariinsky. Stars Andrei Popov (The Left-Hander), Edward Tsanga (Ataman Platov), Vladimir Moroz (Alexander I & Nicholas I), Kristina Alieva (The Flea), Maria Maksakova (Princess Charlotte), and Andrei Spekhov (English Under-Skipper). Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra & Chorus. Set design by Alexander Orlov; costume design by Irina Cherednikova; lighting design by Alexander Sivaev; video direction by Anna Matison. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Thursday
Jun232016

Hercules

Handel Hercules opera to libretto by Thomas Broughton. Directed 2004 by Luc Bondy. Stars William Shimell (Hercules), Joyce DiDonato (Dejanira), Toby Spence (Hyllus), Ingela Bohlin (Iole), Malena Ernman (Lichas), and Simon Kirkbride (Priest of Jupiter). William Christie conducts Les Arts Florissants. Set design by Richard Peduzzi; costume design by Rudy Sabounghi; lighting design by Dominique Bruguière. Released 2016. Grade: Help!

This was originally published in 2006 as a DVD, which was well received. I can't explain why it took 10 more years to offer it in Blu-ray. But it appears this is a legitimate Blu-ray updating of an good title.

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Thursday
Jun232016

Piano Concertos (Schiff)

Sir András Schiff in 2015 conducts the Orchestra Cappella Andrea Barca and plays piano solo during the Salzburg Mozart Week (Mozartwoche). The performances are Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 (Schiff playing piano and conducting); Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 (Schiff playing piano and conducting); and Schubert's Symphony No. 5 (Schiff conducting).  Directed for video by Hella-Brit Giese. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: Help!

"Schiff" in German means "ship." "Barca" in Italian also means "ship." The Italian phrase "Cappella Andrea Barca" could be translated  "András Schiff Band."

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

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