Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in C major, op.59/3, “Razumovsky III”

Media Review / Comparison


2012-02-08 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2012-10-30 — Metronome table added; Endellion String Quartet added
2013-08-06 — New standard layout applied
2014-11-06 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-08 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


Introduction / The Recordings

Here’s another note on the recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets in my music collection, about the quartet in C major, op.59/3 — references to the CDs are given at the bottom of the respective section, or in one of the related postings, or see the summary on the postings covering Beethoven’s String Quartets. Here’s a short list of the recordings in this comparison, in alphabetic order:


The Composition

The String Quartet in C major, op.59/3, “Razumovsky III”, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) features the following movements:

1. Introduzione: Andante con moto (3/4) —

This movement starts with an almost paradoxical tempo annotation: Andante con moto, translated “walking, with movement”, commonly implying a “slightly faster than median, normal, walking pace”. That by itself is OK, but the paradox is that the introduction (29 bars) mostly consists of a series of long, static chords (3 – 9 beats), i.e., there is barely any movement at all. In some interpretations, the impression in fact is that of no movement at all (“senza moto”!), static, “cast in stone”. Maybe the “con moto” should be interpreted as “looking forward, building up tension for the Allegro vivace that follows?

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/3, mvt.1, score sample, Allegro vivace

(1.) — Allegro vivace (4/4)

No tempo issue with the Allegro vivace that follows — in fact, the tempi chosen here fall into an unusually narrow range of 1/4 = 140 up to 156. But — judging from the interpretations in the present comparison — that part of the movement has its own set of challenges, namely in the area of musical flow:

  • there are several instances of a general pause after which an instrument must continue on the second beat with a rapid sixteenth passage. There are several examples in this comparison where this causes a disruption in the musical flow. It’s difficult or impossible to describe how such a pause (or rather the re-start) must be played — the pause and the rhythm must be felt: if the artists thinks (s)he must not start too early, it’s probably already too late, and vice versa. I don’t mean to say that such bars ought to be played with mathematical precision: the pause may indeed be slightly longer than noted — but then the rest of the of the rhythmic layout must “fit”!
  • towards the end of the evolution period there are two passages in the first violin that start with two bars of sixteenths, followed by two bars of eighth trioles, and both these passages appear to be challenges in terms of maintaining a continuous rhythmic flow while avoiding “mechanic”, static timing.
Beethoven, string quartet op.59/3, mvt.1, score sample, Allegro vivace

2. Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (6/8)

A very interesting movement, to say the least! The tempo annotation alone is interesting: in a 6/8 movement, you are suppose to count in 3/8 units (i.e., 2 beats per bar) — on the other hand Andante con moto quasi Allegretto implies a fast Andante (80 – 100?) — but that’s impossible for the 3/8 units. A good solution seems to be to play those units as Andante, an interpreting the con moto quasi Allegretto as pertaining to the eighths that dominate this movement. For the listener, the overall tempo perception also depends on the articulation (1/8 vs. 3/8).

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/3, mvt.2, score sample

The other interesting aspect with this movement is the “strange sound”, creating a mysterious, “empty” atmosphere in this music. This is not just due to the harmonic development, but more so probably due to the fast that this movement really (or mostly) is a trio, not a quartet: over long periods, there are only 2 or 3 voices, and the fourth instrument doubles an existing voice (in unison, in octaves, or in sixths), and especially the “empty” octave parallels and the scarce harmonic support create this strange “modern” sound.

3. Menuetto: Grazioso (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Coda (3/4)

The tempo is given by the term Menuetto, meaning that this should be played like dance music; this is underlined by the term Grazioso — not too slow, not heavy, but it’s also not a speed competition! There is no tempo indication for the Coda, i.e., it should be played close to the tempo of the Menuetto, and should serve as transition to the last movement; I can’t imagine that Beethoven meant to insert a drama, a tragic Intermezzo at this point!

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/3, mvt.3, score sample, Menuetto: Grazioso
Beethoven, string quartet op.59/3, mvt.3, score sample, Trio
Beethoven, string quartet op.59/3, mvt.3, score sample, Coda

4. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

A very virtuoso fugato movement that some ensembles appear to take as the ultimate speed benchmark — however, there is more to it than mere virtuosity! But even at a moderate tempo it is a challenge to make those fast eighths still sound, let alone to retain some articulation and phrasing.

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/3, mvt.4, score sample

Timing Comparison

As one of the few things that one can actually “measure” in music performances, I’m giving the approximate metronome numbers for each of the movements in the text below (the numbers for the introduction of the first movement were calculated from the overall time).

As these numbers are spread over the text, I felt it would help if I collected them in a table, shown below. I have used color coding to indicate relative rates: white would be the average tempo, blue fields are slower tempi, green indicates faster-than-average performances (where the strength of the color indicates the amount of deviation from the average). Some ensembles prefer slower tempi, others are faster throughout, some are “mixed bags” (click on table for full size view):

Beethoven, string quartet op.59/3, comparison, M.M. table

Comments on the Individual Recordings

The order of the interpretations is not chronological (neither by recording / publishing date nor by purchase date), but follows my personal, subjective rating, my preferred recordings shown last:


Guarneri String Quartet (1966)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74 & 95, Guarneri String Quartet (1966), CD cover

Beethoven: The Middle String Quartets, opp. 59, 74, 95

Guarneri String Quartet

RCA Victor / BMG Classics 60457-2 (stereo, 3 CD); ℗ / © 1990

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74 & 95, Guarneri String Quartet (1966), UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 1966, with Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer — for general comments see op.59/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Introduzione: Andante con moto (3/4) — Allegro vivace (4/4)

11’04”; 1/4 = 62 — 140 (Allegro vivace)
Intro: slow, rather static, often with their synchronized vibrato that sounds a bit obnoxious to me; the Allegro vivace suffers from flow disruptions, not only from slightly prolonged general breaks (see above), but also from that strange rallentando at the end of the first solo passage for the Cello in the exposition (probably a cellist’s nightmare!).

2. Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (6/8)

11’05”; 3/8 = 42
Too slow! Where is the “con moto”, let alone the “quasi allegretto”? Consequently, the movement has some lengths, the expression is too monotonous. In this interpretation, this music sounds rather like a late romantic, if not even later period movement. Also, the sfp are rather soft — too soft.

3. Menuetto: Grazioso (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Coda (3/4)

5’28”; 1/4 = 100 — 116 (Trio) — 95 (Coda)
Fairly clumsy, lots of “swollen” (<>) notes. Where’s the dance?

4. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’26”; 1/2 = 172
They were still young when they recorded this, and obviously they aimed at breaking the speed record here: this is way too fast: the tempo itself is astonishing, but there are lots of rushed, careless or inaccurate passages, the staccato half-notes have arbitrary duration (almost up to legato), the second violin uses too much vibrato on long notes (as actually still in their 1992 recording).

Recommendation:Definitely not
Rating:2.0 (2 / 2 / 2 / 2)

Amadeus Quartet (1959)

Beethoven, string quartets, Amadeus Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: The String Quartets (opp. 18, 59, 74, 95, 127, 130-133, 135)

Amadeus Quartet

DG 463 143-2 (stereo, 7 CD); ℗ 1962 / © 1974

Beethoven, string quartets, Amadeus Quartet, UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 1959, with Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel, Peter Schidlof, Martin Lovett — for general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Introduzione: Andante con moto (3/4) — Allegro vivace (4/4)

8’16” (exposition not repeated); 1/4 = 66 — 144 (Allegro vivace)
The tempo in the introduction is among the faster ones — but still, that part appears completely static, lacking tension: as a listener I’m trying to get some sense of tempo — and I get lost. The Allegro vivace is OK in general, with the exception of an apparent, slight lack of tempo control in the first violin, and bad articulation in places such as the first cello solo in the exposition.

2. Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (6/8)

9’26”; 3/8 = 53
Real piano playing is rare: overall, this interpretation sounds rough, coarse, “loud”, is never really soft. The first violin dominates, uses lots of vibrato.

3. Menuetto: Grazioso (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Coda (3/4)

4’42”; 1/4 = 120 — 132 (Trio) — 105 (Coda)
Technically flawless, e.g., in the transitions between the instruments — but the tempo is at the upper limit for a Menuetto; the first violin appears to play forte all the time, lacking poetry, not grazioso. Same for the Trio: the first violin dominates too much, everything is too loud, too forceful, not grazioso.

4. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

6’09”; 1/2 = 144
Virtuoso, lots of routine, no coordination issues — but they appear to have forgotten how to produce a nice sound; very loud and noisy (or were the microphones placed next to the bridge?), dominated again by the first violin that kills the other voices (I’m tempted to say: almost with the decency of a chainsaw).

Recommendation:No
Rating:2.5 (3 / 3 / 2 / 2)

Endellion String Quartet (2007)

Beethoven, string quartets, Endellion String Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets, Quintets & Fragments

Endellion String Quartet

WCJ (Warner Classics & Jazz) 2564 69471-3 (stereo, 10 CD); ℗ / © 2008

Beethoven, string quartets, Endellion String Quartet, UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 2007, with Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza, Garfield Jackson, David Waterman — for general remarks see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Introduzione: Andante con moto (3/4) — Allegro vivace (4/4)

10’44”; 1/4 = 63 — 150 (Allegro vivace)
The introduction is entirely static, flat, without tension — where’s the con moto? The Allegro vivace is more or less OK, though there are some intonation and articulation issues, there are a couple flow disruptions at general breaks, and the short “cadenzas” in the first violin are not entirely harmonic (from a rhythmic perspective).

2. Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (6/8)

9’44”; 3/8 = 47
The tempo is at the lower limit for an Andante con moto; the vibrato is very inconspicuous, but the tone is a bit rough. Overall, the interpretation (for me) is a bit flat, could be more expressive, especially in the details / short phrases / figures.

3. Menuetto: Grazioso (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Coda (3/4)

5’12”; 1/4 = 105 — 126 (Trio) — 100 (Coda)
The Menuetto grazioso is relatively contour less, too smooth (too legato?) — where’s the grazioso aspect? On the other hand, the Trio is very harsh in the staccato notes, could be more playful. The Coda is disconnected, sounds rather tragic, does not really build tension towards the last movement, or otherwise try to bridge / lead from the Menuetto to the virtuosic fugato that follows.

4. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

6’07”; 1/2 = 150
A good tempo, the articulation is a bit rough, though, and the movement could often be more transparent. Half-way through the movement, there are some odd tempo jumps, probably from mixing takes from recording sessions at different speeds.

Recommendation:No
Rating:2.5 (2 / 3 / 2 / 3)

Quartetto Italiano (1974)

Beethoven, string quartets, Quartetto Italiano, CD cover

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets (opp. 18, 59, 74, 95, 127, 130-133, 135)

Quartetto Italiano

Decca 454 062-2 (stereo, 10 CD); ℗ 1972 / © 1996

Beethoven, string quartets, Quartetto Italiano, CD, UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 1974, with Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi, Piero Farulli, Franco Rossi — for general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Introduzione: Andante con moto (3/4) — Allegro vivace (4/4)

10’42”; 1/4 = 53 — 144 (Allegro vivace)
The introduction is extremely slow; there is tension building up towards the Allegro vivace — but this is definitely not Andante, let alone “con moto”. The Allegro vivace features a very homogeneous, soft sound and articulation, causing some loss in transparency. There is a tempo discontinuity at the beginning of the repeat of the exposition — a “cutting artifact”?

2. Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (6/8)

10’02”; 3/8 = 45
Rather slow — too slow. I prefer their sfp over the ones with the Guarneri String Quartet: here, they stand out nicely, are more pronounced / explicit.

3. Menuetto: Grazioso (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Coda (3/4)

5’03”; 1/4 = 110 — 130 (Trio) — 85 (Coda)
In the Menuetto, the articulation is natural, light, good tempo, but there are some rhythmic inaccuracies. In the Trio, the staccati are somewhat hard, the transitions between instruments could be smoother. The Coda seems very (too) broad, tragic.

4. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

6’26”; 1/2 = 140
OK, though with some articulation inaccuracies (even though with the slowest tempo in this comparison).

Recommendation:No
Rating:2.8 (3 / 3 / 2 / 3)

Guarneri String Quartet (1992)

Beethoven, string quartets op.59, Guarneri String Quartet (1991), CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartets op. 59

Guarneri String Quartet

Philips 432 980-2 (stereo, 2 CD); ℗ / © 1995

Beethoven, string quartets op.59, Guarneri String Quartet (1991), UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 1992, with Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer — for general comments see op.59/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Introduzione: Andante con moto (3/4) — Allegro vivace (4/4)

11’01”; 1/4 = 65 — 150 (Allegro vivace)
The flow in the Allegro vivace is slightly better than in their earlier recording — but restarting after a general break still appears to be challenging; in some instances, a delayed start after a break appears to be compensated by a slight accelerando — but the result still isn’t always convincing. The sfp are still rather soft.

2. Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (6/8)

9’56”; 3/8 = 48
The tempo is definitely better than in their earlier recording, the interpretation has more expression and emotional breadth.

3. Menuetto: Grazioso (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Coda (3/4)

5’30”; 1/4 = 100 — 116 (Trio) — 95 (Coda)
Same tempo as 1966, but now the Menuetto is very broad, legatissimo, even staccato notes are soft and broad. Not a dance. In the Trio, the articulation is very heavy, never grazioso.

4. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’47”; 1/2 = 160
Good sound and instrument balance, but the intonation in fast passages is not always clean, some unnecessarily strong vibrato on long notes, particularly in the second violin.

Recommendation:No
Rating:3.0 (3 / 3 / 3 / 3)

Emerson String Quartet (1997)

Beethoven, string quartets, Emerson String Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: The String Quartets (opp. 18, 59, 74, 95, 127, 130-133, 135)

Emerson String Quartet

DG 447 075-2 (stereo, 7 CD); ℗ 1996

Beethoven, string quartets, Emerson String Quartet, UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 1997, with Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel — for general comments see op.18/1.

Notes on the Movements

1. Introduzione: Andante con moto (3/4) — Allegro vivace (4/4)

10’06”; 1/4 = 66 — 156 (Allegro vivace)
The tempo in the introduction may be OK, but to me this is too static, lacking emotion and tension; less vibrato would be better. Technically, the Allegro vivace may be nearly perfect, but it could be more dramatic (speed does not make up for expression!). I also feel some slight flow disruptions after general breaks — maybe more felt as “slight rhythmic discomfort” after such general breaks.

2. Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (6/8)

8’49”; 3/8 = 52
Good tempo, they don’t always use vibrato (but where they do, it is often fairly pronounced, often even synchronous, unfortunately). The occasional, sonorous f pizzicato with vibrato in the cello is a bit overdone, even though it sounds nice.

3. Menuetto: Grazioso (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Coda (3/4)

5’06”; 1/4 = 110 — 128 (Trio) — 104 (Coda)
The Menuetto could be more dance-like, and in the Trio the articulation is rather hard. Grazioso??

4. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’32”; 1/2 = 170
Almost as fast as the 1966 recording of the Guarneri String Quartet, though technically flawless and accurate — but still too fast (impossible to produce detail in phrasing, articulation and agogics), has little sonority: mainly aiming for perfection and speed (the tempo is still fully controlled, though).

Recommendation:Not the worst of their interpretations, but does not come close to the ones below.
Rating:3.5 (3 / 4 / 3 / 4)

Melos Quartett Stuttgart (1984)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74, 95 & 14/1, Melos Quartett, CD cover

Beethoven: Die mittleren Streichquartette op.14/1, opp. 59, 74, 95

Melos Quartett Stuttgart

DG 415 342-1 (stereo, 3 CD); ℗ 1985

Beethoven, string quartets opp.59, 74, 95 & 14/1, Melos Quartett, UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 1984, with Wilhelm Melcher, Gerhard Voss, Hermann Voss, Peter Buck — for general comments see op.59/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Introduzione: Andante con moto (3/4) — Allegro vivace (4/4)

10’08”; 1/4 = 60 — 150 (Allegro vivace)
The introduction is very expressive, builds up tension, and I like their restricted / selective use of vibrato. The Allegro vivace has drive, is dramatic, expressive — and has no flow disruption issues whatsoever: very good!

2. Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (6/8)

8’31”; 3/8 = 55
I like their sfp, and the tempo is very good — sometimes, in those sixteenth-passages in the middle, one almost feels a “dance-like swinging”. Very expressive, with a broad spectrum of emotions.

3. Menuetto: Grazioso (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Coda (3/4)

4’47”; 1/4 = 116 — 128 (Trio) — 116 (Coda)
Natural, light in the articulation, swinging / “elastic”, technically excellent, but not trying to show off virtuosity, the first violin often steps back behind other voices, paying attention to melodies in lower voices and secondary melodies. Here, the Coda is not tragic, but a good transition to the following movement.

4. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

5’48”; 1/2 = 152
The tempo here is much better than with the Emerson String Quartet, fairly virtuoso, still, with more articulation, sound, phrasing; no rush in general, even though the last part is accelerated up to 1/2 = 180. Unfortunately, there are some odd tempo discontinuities and variations, as if they lost control at times (or is it all just because they combined takes from recording sessions with slightly different tempo?).

Recommendation:Yes, mostly
Rating:4.0 (4 / 5 / 4 / 3)

Artemis Quartet (1998)

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/2, 59/3, 131 & 132, Artemis Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartets opp. 18/2, 59/3, 131, 132

Artemis Quartet

Virgin Classics 50999 607102 0 8 (2 CD, stereo); ℗ 2000-2003 / © 2010

Beethoven, string quartets opp.18/2, 59/3, 131 & 132, Artemis Quartet, EAN-13 barcode
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Recorded in 1998, with Natalia Prischepenko, Heime Müller, Volker Jacobsen, Eckart Runge — for general remarks see op.18/2.

Notes on the Movements

1. Introduzione: Andante con moto (3/4) — Allegro vivace (4/4)

10’46”; 1/4 = 54 — 148 (Allegro vivace)
The introduction has tension, but is a bit on the slow side. The Allegro vivace is very detailed in articulation, phrasing and its finely tuned agogics, dramatic / emotional, yet accurately observing Beethoven’s notation.

2. Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (6/8)

9’05”; 3/8 = 52
The sep notes stand out nicely, though their articulation is maybe a bit too “civilized” / artificial / sterile? Technically flawless — overall maybe a bit “technocratic”, intellectual?

3. Menuetto: Grazioso (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Coda (3/4)

5’29”; 1/4 = 110 — 120 (Trio) — 95 (Coda)
Natural, light in the articulation, swinging / “elastic”, technically perfect. The tempo may be at the lower limit for a Menuetto — but in return one can enjoy lots of otherwise unheard details in articulation and phrasing. As with the Melos Quartett, the Coda is not tragic, but a good transition to the following movement.

4. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

6’13”; 1/2 = 150
Wisely, they chose a moderate tempo: it all still sounds, there is room for phrasing and articulation, even agogics: some ritenuti and accelerandi, but all clearly controlled — an excellent performance!

Recommendation:Yes!
Rating:5.0 (5 / 5 / 5 / 5)

Kuijken Quartet (2006)

Beethoven, string quartets op.59, string quintet op.29, Kuijken Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartets op.59, String Quintet op.29

Kuijken Quartet

Challenge classics CC72362 (2 x SACD); ℗ / © 2010

Beethoven, string quartets op.59, string quintet op.29, Kuijken Quartet, UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 2006, with Veronica Kuijken, Sigiswald Kuijken, Sara Kuijken, Wieland Kuijken — for general comments see op.59/1

Notes on the Movements

1. Introduzione: Andante con moto (3/4) — Allegro vivace (4/4)

11’03”; 1/4 = 71 — 144 (Allegro vivace)
This is the fastest introduction — maybe the closest approximation to “con moto”? It’s certainly not static, but full of tension & expectation toward the following Allegro vivace. The latter is another example of natural articulation, playful, yet expressive, dramatic in articulation and phrasing. No flow issues at all, not trying to be perfect or to deliver a “polished” performance!

2. Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (6/8)

8’10”; 3/8 = 55
An excellent interpretation, once more! I like their flexible, dynamic small-scale agogics & phrasing; in my view by far the best interpretation of the “con moto, quasi Allegretto”.

3. Menuetto: Grazioso (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Coda (3/4)

4’54”; 1/4 = 116 — 130 (Trio) — 110 (Coda)
This is among the fastest interpretations — but no other interpretation retains that much dance character, and none of the others play such nice, long phrases!

4. Allegro molto (alla breve, 2/2)

6’41”; 1/2 = 140
The faster tempi used by some of the contenders here would not work with period instruments. The Kuijken Quartet does not use period instruments, but they try to approach a tempo and articulation that were possible and likely 200 years ago. We are back to the tempo of the Quartetto Italiano, but it does not appear slow at all — there are lots of newly discovered details / aspects in articulation and phrasing, e.g.: the dotted half notes are really staccato, the slow voices are not just taken as accompaniment, but appear as melody (with the fast voices now used as accompaniment): excellent musicianship, excellent recording!

Recommendation:Yes!
Rating:5.0 (5 / 5 / 5 / 5)

Addendum

I’m using pocket scores to follow this music while listening. The listing shows the volumes for all of Beethoven’s string quartets:

  1. op.18/1-6 (Kalmus pocket score No.759) —Find pocket score volume I on amazon.com—
  2. op.59/1-3 (Kalmus pocket score No.760) —Find pocket score volume II on amazon.com—
  3. opp.74, 95, 127, 130 (Kalmus pocket score No.761) —Find pocket score volume III on amazon.com—
  4. opp.131, 132, 133, 135 (Kalmus pocket score No.762) —Find pocket score volume IV on amazon.com—


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