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Boris Christoff by Atanas Bozhkoff

Boris Christoff (1985)

by Atanas Bozhkoff

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Atanas Bozhkoff

Boris Christoff:
An Authorized Biography

Robson Books, Hardback, 1991.

8vo. 183 pp. Translated by John Woodward. Edited with "Critical Discography" by Alan Blyth [pp. 167-183]. Discography by Malcolm Walker [pp. 155-166]. Foreword by Lord Harewood [pp. 9-11]. 8 pages with black-and-white photographs. Cover portrait of Boris Christoff as Boris Godunov by Leonard Boden.

First published in Bulgarian, 1985.
This abridged translation first published, 1991.


Editor's Note
Foreword by Lord Harewood

1. Secrets of the Family Tree
2. The Time Before Dawn
3. Recognition
4. Christoff and Operatic Character
5. Seeking Historical Truth
6. Russian Opera
7. Russian Song
8. The Great Home-coming

A Critical Discography by Alan Blyth
Discography by Malcolm Walker


Information about the legendary Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff (1914-1993) is frustratingly scarce. Despite nearly 40 years career as operatic artist and lieder singer, not to mention a pretty impressive discography, he is virtually unknown outside the narrow circle of opera connoisseurs not addicted to digital recordings.

There are very few books about Boris, most of them published in Bulgarian only. The best that can be said about the finest of these volumes is that they are beautifully illustrated. Most of what is printed on paper is under the form of liner notes to CDs; few of these contain anything more than basic biographical facts. The situation hardly improves online: apart from a couple of knowledgeable reviews on Amazon, there is hardly anything worth reading, let alone any worthy analysis of his art. Even the omniscient Wikipedia is almost silent about Boris Christoff. (Perhaps it's time to fix at least that...)

So far as I know, there is one and only one book ever published which deals with the life and art of this incomparable artist in a thorough and authoritative manner. This is Boris Christoff: La Vita, La Voce, L'arte (1996) by Carlo Curami and Maurizio Modugno, two Italian music critics who knew Boris in his late years and after his death combined their forces to produce a remarkable book. In addition to the most extensive and better researched biography than any other, it also contains extensive discussions of each role Boris ever sang and/or recorded, complete chronology of his concert/operatic appearances/recordings, and a comprehensive discography. It is indeed "the life, the voice, the art". This invaluable study was translated into Bulgarian (as a very well-produced edition badly in need of copy-editing) soon after it was published into the original Italian, but it has never been translated into English.

The "Authorized Biography" by Atanas Bozhkoff is, to the best of my knowledge, the only book about Boris Christoff in English. It is an abridged edition of a work first published in Bulgarian in 1985 which, as neatly explained by Alan Blyth in his "Editor's Note", is neither biography nor any more authorized than being written by a man who knew Boris personally, if not intimately, for many years. With wonderful British condescension Mr Blyth informs us that the text was "adapted" for wider reading public by removing all that may be unintelligible for anybody who is not Bulgarian. Well, never mind that. Let's look at the book from an international point of view.

Perhaps first I should state my own "credentials". They are far less impressive than those of the three contributors to the book. For my part, Boris Christoff is by far the greatest voice I have ever heard as well as one of the most compelling artistic personalities; whatever he sang, he made something unique out of it. Alas, I have never heard him live: I was not yet five when he gave his last concert. My (perhaps presumptuous) desire to comment at length, and rather critically, on this book stems from my experience with Boris' recordings and the literature about him in Bulgarian. These sources I know almost in their entirety.

Mr Bozhkoff has written a fairly decent though in many ways flawed biographical portrait. In the first three chapters he deals with the life of Boris Christoff, in the rest of the book he attempts to describe the essence and scope of his artistry. By the time of the English edition, the 77-years-old Boris had already retired and his activity was limited to teaching; and even that was severely curtailed by serious illness. So the book is free to discuss his complete artistic achievement, although since 1991 many "new" recordings have been released and even more "old" ones have appeared in superior sound quality.

Unfortunately Mr Bozhkoff's work is rife with shortcomings. He does his best job summarizing Boris' childhood and youth; the latter was especially eventful. He left his native country when he was only 28-years-old to study singing in Italy with the great baritone Ricardo Stracciari. Since this was during the Second World War, the lessons were interrupted and Boris had some unpleasant experiences. At one time he nearly lost his life during bombing in Salzburg, at another he was sent to a labour camp in Austria. After the war ended, his career developed quickly in the late 1940s. He debuted on the opera stage in 1946 and sang numerous times many roles during the next three years. This was his apprentice period.

In 1949 he made his first appearance in London as Boris Godunov in the eponymous opera of Mussorgsky. This was an outstanding success which led to his first recordings and international fame. During the 1950s and early 1960s Boris was much sought after in most great parts of the bass repertoire, above all Boris Godunov and Philip II, but also Gomez da Silva, Mephistopheles (both Boito's and Gounod's), Fiesco, Procida, Dosifey and others. From the mid-1960s on he limited his activity to a few key roles but remained on the stage until 1982. During all that time, but particularly in his late years, he often appeared in lieder recitals. Most of his career was confined to Europe, mostly England and Italy, occasionally Austria, Germany, France or Spain. He seldom crossed the Atlantic and never stayed for very long.

From chapter 4 start the serious problems with Mr Bozhkoff's writing. He chooses an unfortunate geographical approach to describe Boris' career and the result is a deplorable hotchpotch with many jarring time transitions. His writing style is indifferent, at best, and it's often too fulsome to be taken seriously. Most unfortunately, he constantly quotes reviews at length, trying to describe what completely defies description. Boris' unique timbre, baritone-like range, perfect diction, unbelievable ability to sing mezza voce, his vocal acting, all these things have been written about countless times. It makes for a really tedious read. You had much better listen to a CD. You may start with EMI's "The Very Best", an excellent overview of Boris' artistry.

Moreover, Mr Bozhkoff's research is very suspicious indeed. Except for the reviews, he seldom indicates his sources. Since he first heard Boris as early as 1966 and later met him many times, most of the biography probably came from the singer himself. In a nutshell, Mr Bozhkoff's basic facts are correct, but his details should be taken with a pinch of salt. It is unlikely, for example, that Boris sang Philip II on 420 occasions; in the book of signori Curami and Modugno only about one third of this number can be corroborated. The story about Karajan's embracing and kissing Boris after a performance in the early 1960s during which they had an artistic disagreement is probably fictional. Such things were highly untypical of Karajan, for one thing, and since the late 1940s, when there was a fallout between them, they had worked very little together - which makes such effusiveness on the conductor's part even more difficult to believe.

It must be said, however, that not all of Mr Bozhkoff's quotes are useless and boring criticism. Especially in the late chapters, there are many valuable excerpts from interviews with Boris. Some of these were given for obscure newspapers/magazines and are today very difficult to obtain. Others seem to have been personal communications with the author. Many passages are strikingly revealing about the artistic side of Boris' personality. For example, his analysis of the ill-fated Russian tsar, the protagonist in "Boris Godunov", is fascinating:

I do not take Pushkin, who emphasizes the murderer in him. I go with Mussorgsky, who, developing the theme of his opera, puts forward the humane side. Boris is no more than a man, sated with power and blood. He loves children. He is a believer. He is a thinker. And the burden of his conscience of the crimes he has committed kills him. This is the prevailing theme of Mussorgsky's opera. It is the spectacle of a gigantic, devastating tragedy of conscience, which can only kill the suffering soul of a repentant man. Boris dies because he has become a martyr. I have always seen it that way.

I am also pleased to report that in the chapter "Russian Song" Mr Bozhkoff (though losing too much time with mediocre composer like Balakirev) quotes extensively from Boris' own liner notes to his complete recording of Mussorgsky's amazing songs (63 gems altogether) made between 1955 and 1957 on four LPs. This is a landmark achievement in the history of gramophone. It was unheard-of at the time to record even one LP with such songs, let alone four, and the bosses in EMI were understandably worried about the commercial potential of such box-set. It was a smashing success and it has never been surpassed. It is sad that this treasure, released on 3 CDs in 1989, is nowadays hopelessly out-of-print.

It's even sadder that when EMI came with a most lavish presentation for the CD release - for first and last time I saw booklet with Russian lyrics printed in Cyrillic! - they omitted all of Boris' own liner notes. He did a lot of research at the time in order to put every single song in the context of Mussorgsky's life and works. Many of his observations, as evident from the generous quotations, are worth considering. For instance, it's amazing to learn that Mussorgsky apparently contemplated orchestration of his early song "Where art thou, little star?" - for my money one of the most beautiful things imaginable - because in the score he added above the opening theme the word "dudka" (cor anglais). It fits the music to perfection.

This is not the place for music reviews but a few words about these fabulous recordings must be said. So far as I know such dedication to Mussorgsky's lieder was unheard-of not just at the time of recording, but it has been unheard-of ever since. The emotional range of these songs, to begin with, is nothing short of astonishing. Cycles like "Sunless" and "Songs and Dances of Death", both with dark and brooding texts by Golenishchev-Kutuzov, are surely among the most emotionally shattering music ever created. In a complete contrast, "Nursery" is a cycle of playful children's songs, full of careless fun. To give another extreme example, "The Song of the Flea" (with Russian translation from Goethe's Faust as text) is a boisterous Mephistophelian fable, complete with demonic laughter. It is difficult to believe that these were composed by the same man.

Believe it or not, the vast range of the songs is fully matched by the artistry of Boris Christoff. In "Nursery" he lightens his voice to such a degree that it no longer has anything to do with the thundering bass he is best known for. In "Night", with a wonderfully intimate lyrics by Pushkin, he demonstrates quiet singing that defies belief; it has to be heard to be believed. The same goes for "Song and Dances of Death". It is a shame that there are still people who choose to degrade the recording because Boris used the "corrupt" orchestrations of Rimsky-Korsakov and not Mussorgsky's piano originals. But I have yet to hear anything even remotely in the same league when it comes to a peasant frozen in the snow ("Trepak"), a dying child and a hysterical mother ("Lullaby"), the death of a beautiful maiden ("Serenade") and the mass slaughter on the battlefield, visited afterwards by Death ("The Field-Marshall") who wants to have an army of marching corpses.

Enough digressions for now. Coming back to Mr Bozhkoff, he is only moderately successful when he tries to give some idea of Boris' artistic personality. It's a patchy picture full of superfluous detail or useless rhetoric.

He at least makes a good case about the sheer dedication of the great bass. This is not something that's often appreciated. Especially in the cases of Boris Godunov and Philip, his two most famous roles, the preparations included, in addition to the score and the libretto of course, a great deal of reading, studying of portraits, and other extra-musical activities.

The author also mentions Boris' struggle to sing "Boris" in Russian, something that caused not a little consternation at the time. Today the practice of singing opera in translation is mercifully nearly extinct. But in the 1950s it was common. When Boris told Covent Garden in 1949 that he was about to sing in Russian, the rest of the cast had to sing in English. Since he was only human after all, Boris couldn't win all battles. He had to sing "Khovanshtina", Mussorgsky's other masterpiece, in Italian and he did sing a great deal of Wagner in Italian. But about "Godunov" he was adamant. He never sang it in any other language but Russian.

Mr Bozhkoff is rather silent about the numerous off-stage scandals, but it's perhaps better not to elaborate much on that. Still, Boris has earned the notoriety of a most difficult person to get along with. It's telling that many of his most famous collisions were either with prima donnas (of either sex: Callas and Corelli, for example) or with people who had very strong artistic visions and the personality to realise them at the expense of everything else (e.g. Karajan who wanted Boris to sing Don Giovanni but was quite unexpectedly turned down because the bass was sure the part didn't suit him).

The author points out, however, that these scandals arose, not from some stubborn wilfulness, but from genuine dissatisfaction on Boris' side. He could not abide sloppiness and flippancy. For him it was unforgivable to miss all rehearsals but the last one. And he certainly had very little patience with inflated egos, no matter how celebrated the singer. So there were blocked curtain calls for Callas ("Nothing serious. Just a little "Greek-Bulgarian war", cheerfully explained the manager) and sword fights and injured fingers with Corelli.

Yet there is at least one scandal about which Mr Bozhkoff tells in some detail. This is another place where his quotes are most welcome. In 1980 Boris gave a recital in Carnegie Hall, one of the last in his career, and two of New York's major newspapers, Times and Post, eloquently summarised how he was ostracized in the US three decades earlier:

Mr Christoff, one of the greatest basses and singer-actors, should have made his debut at the Metropolitan in the role of King Philip in Verdi's Don Carlo as long ago as 1950, in the first season of Rudolf Bing's directorship. However, this coincided with the height of the McCarthyite hysteria and Mr Christoff, a Bulgarian, was refused a visa by the government. For many reasons, most of which were groundless, he has never sung in the Metropolitan, and in fact before this evening he had sung only once before in New York.

[Almost all of Boris' relatively few appearances in the US were in Chicago. There is a story, probably apocryphal but nonetheless telling, about a meeting between Boris and Rudolf Bing. "Mr Christoff, you are not an easy man to deal with, but we are very dangerous, too", said the boss of Metropolitan. Boris got up, opened his jacket and said: "Mr Bing, I have no guns."]

In 1950, when Senator McCarthy's witch-hunt was on the prowl for so-called Communists, Christoff was refused permission to take part in the first performance of a new production at the Metropolitan because he had a Bulgarian passport, despite the fact that he had been living in Italy for six years and had never been a member of any political party.

This episode becomes especially amusing when one reflects that one of the main reasons for Boris to remain in Italy after the war was his decidedly anti-communist attitude. The singer had left Bulgaria in 1942 with a stipend granted directly from the tsar. When the war was over and the communists took the rule, he naturally was persona non grata, a tsarist man. It's one of Bulgaria's everlasting national shames that one of her greatest sons, while making a glittering career in the west, never sang in front of a live audience in his native country.

It is a minor miracle that in the second half of the 1970s he was allowed to visit Bulgaria and make some recordings in St. Alexander Nevski, the Sofia cathedral. Mr Bozhkoff's final chapter is dedicated to these now legendary achievements. In 1976 a selection of Bulgarian and Russian orthodox chants was recorded, in 1978/79 Alexander Gretchaninov's almost unknown "Liturgia Domestica" (complete), and in 1979/80 an opera recital and some songs by Gretchaninov. The first of these albums, especially, has become quite famous. Boris' magnificent voice, still rich and powerful at the age of 62, is accompanied only by a chorus, the acoustic of the cavernous church is excellent, and it's hard to imagine how the result could ever be surpassed. I generally find Eastern Orthodox music impossibly boring. But this CD, with this unearthly voice, is definitely an exception.

Mr Bozhkoff mentions nothing about the communist scandals, probably because it wasn't safe yet when the book first appeared. But it's a fact nowadays known that Boris' brother, Nikolay, lost his practice as a lawyer and ended his life in a labour camp. When his father died, Boris was denied visa to attend his funeral. The notorious scandal with Nikolai Ghiaurov, another great Bulgarian bass, in La Scala in the early 1960s was for years paraded as being based on social incompatibility between the singers. In fact, however, the reasons were purely political: Ghiaurov was supported by the communist regime and had left the country with their blessing; Christoff could not come back even to visit his family, and he had to cope with great difficulties to arrange his parents to visit him in Italy or the chorus of the Sofia National Opera to come for recordings in Paris.

Strangely enough - or perhaps it's not strange at all for the reasons are the same - Mr Bozhkoff is silent about the so called Bulgarian Academy in Rome. This was Boris' own house turned into a place for teaching young and promising Bulgarian singers. He wanted to donate the building officially to the Bulgarian government and he had to endure years of legal problems with communist morons who probably viewed the project as a dangerous imperialistic propaganda. The Academy has been of great help to many young singers since then and, as far as I know, it is still functional. It was actually there, in 1986, that Boris gave his last concert ever.

Ardent nationalists have made much of Boris' Macedonian ancestors or his Russian mother. Yet the fact is that he was born in the Bulgarian town of Plovdiv, he was raised as a Bulgarian and all his life was proud to be a Bulgarian - as the Bulgarian Academy in Rome eloquently testifies. But, really, the only thing that matters is not where one was born but how one feels. Franz Liszt was born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, his father was a German-speaking Hungarian and his mother was an Austrian, yet all his life he was proud to be a Hungarian. And perhaps it's time to abolish these artificial national boundaries, too. The important common denominator between the music of Liszt and the recordings of Boris Christoff is that both belong to the world. All you need to enjoy them are some traces of humanity.

Mr Bozhkoff does have something to say about Boris' stage conflicts with directors. The first of many happened in London in 1949, and this historical performance might not have happened but for the diplomatic acrobatics of David Webster, the boss of Covent Garden. The director in question was Peter Brook, no less, and his modernistic interpretation of Mussorgsky's masterpiece was met, to say the least, with coldness by the bass. Once he was offered to sing Gounod's Mephistopheles with top hat and tails. He politely told the fellows to go and shoot themselves.

Boris always was a strong-willed artist with very definite ideas about staging, costumes and sets. Many considered him an old-fashioned relic, but he was convinced in his artistic ideals and when he thought the director was incompetent didn't hesitate to say so. Nor could he tolerate dictatorship from conductors, and there were some rough cases in this department, too.

Another aspect Mr Bozhkoff's nearly adulatory treatment may give you a false idea of is that there always were - and still are - quite a few artistic criticisms against Boris Christoff. I have never been able to take any of them seriously, but a couple of words might be useful as a supplement to the rather one-sided treatment in the book.

First let's dispense with that tiresome cliche about Boris Christoff being a successor of Feodor Chaliapin. So much has been written on the subject, not least by Mr Bozhkoff, that many people have come to regard this gross oversimplification as something important. The only similarity between both singers is what they have been most criticised about: an extremely naturalistic acting, most notably in the great Death Scene of Boris Godunov. This may at first glance seem to be something perceptive and worth chanting over and over. It isn't. The reason is that both singers could not have been more different in terms of voice and interpretation. Choose any aria you like for comparison.

Many have complained - and continue to complain - about Boris' "hammy" histrionics in "Boris Godunov". There are at least two video recordings of the Death Scene issued on DVD - 1956 in New York and 1958 in London - and both show tremendous performances which, alas, seem unacceptable to our emotionally crippled age. Boris' interpretation of his namesake, often described as the Russian Richard III, was indeed extreme, full of histrionics (also in the chilling Hallucinations Scene) and often rather declamatory (see the previous brackets). It has spoiled for me all other Boris Godunovs!

What most people fail to realise about the harrowing Final Scene is that Boris Godunov doesn't die of a mere heart attack; thousands die of this each year; it's common. He dies of guilty conscience, haunted by his bloody crimes. Now, that's something extremely rare. And it requires extreme measures of expression. As for the Hallucinations Scene, mere singing simply won't do here. It's a dramatic recitation that's needed.

Even those who are impressed by Boris' acting often complain that his voice is too small. Well, there are many eyewitnesses - indeed earwitnesses - who testify that, though not especially powerful, his voice penetrated to the most distant corners even of great halls. But that's beside the point. The small volume is essential for the perfect diction. Boris always insisted on careful projection of the text and one can usually take a dictation from his recordings. Had he been one of those big, booming basses, it is quite probable that Boris would not have had such a perfect diction. At any rate, this no longer matters. Since the gramophone loved Boris' voice, diction is more important than volume in the long run, too.

So much for Mr Bozhkoff's biographical portrait. It's a good overview of the life and art of Boris Christoff, but it's quite inadequate as anything more than a starting point. What's worse, it suffers from mediocre writing, affectation, stupendous quotation of dull reviews, a number of omissions and sloppy research. So it should be read with great caution, taking at face value only major events and words that come directly from Boris Christoff.

The Foreword of Lord Harewood is very nice. He had the enviable opportunity - and how I envy him! - to see Boris live countless times in the course of decades, mostly but not only in London. The most important point from his essay to keep in mind is Boris' remarkable versatility. Though he was most famous for great tragic parts like Boris Godunov and Philip II, he also played Don Basilio, a decidedly comic character, some rather mischievous fellows like Mephistopheles, and even grave Wagnerian noblemen such as Gurnemanz in "Parsifal". He never had the opportunity to get under the skin of Leporello, but the Catalogue aria he sang frequently at concerts; it's a poignant reminder of a great missed opportunity. Nor is it often remembered today that Boris' repertoire extended also to major parts by Gluck (Agamemnon), Handel (Julius Caesar) and Monteverdi (Seneca). In 1972 he even sang in Nielsen's "Saul and David", his only part in English.

And it should never be forgotten that Boris was just at home in the lieder repertoire. It wasn't just Mussorgsky that he sang at recitals, but a number of other Russian composers (Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Borodine) and even some of their German colleagues (Schubert, Brahms, Schumann). On the top of all that Boris also sang and actually recorded quite a bit of religious music, Catholic such as Verdi's or Brahms' Requiems (the latter in Italian, rather than in the original German), or Orthodox such as "Liturgia Domestica" and various chants. He was a lifelong champion of the Russian folk song as well, such as "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" or "The Song of the Siberian Prisoner" recorded as early as 1950/51 (the latter with Gerald Moore on the piano).

There are very few singers who have been able to attain the greatest heights in so many so different fields. Russian and Italian opera, sometimes mingled with French and German. Arias, lieder and folk songs. Eastern and Western church music. God, Devil and Death; kings, tsars, emperors; philosophers, noblemen, priests. Boris has sung them all.

The "Critical Discography" is a surprisingly comprehensive summary of Boris' major studio recordings in chronological order. These encompass a period of more than 30 years (1949-1980) and, in addition to more than 200 Russian songs, also include studio recordings of eight complete operas (three of them recorded twice) and a number of live performances or radio broadcasts, not to mention numerous arias. It is not surprising, therefore, that there would be omissions in Mr Blyth's relatively short piece. I am amazed there are not more of them.

Being a music critic, and an eminent one at that, Mr Blyth is of course often either lost in clichés or pretty high-handed. He insists on comparing Boris with Chaliapin (again!) and he is convinced that Andre Cluytens is not an idiomatic conductor when it comes to Russian opera. Well, anybody can hear the second recording (1962) of "Boris Godunov" and decide, if that makes any sense, whether it is better than the first one (1952) and whether the conducting of Issay Dobrowen is more idiomatic because he is Russian. To my mind, such "criticism" is the epitome of vacuousness.

Personally, I consider Boris' 1950 recording of "The Song of the Viking Guest" (from "Sadko" by Rimsky-Korsakov) to be some of the most glorious three minutes of music ever committed on record. It is beyond me how all Mr Blyth has to say is that it reminds one of Chaliapin's recording. It does nothing of the kind, of course. It's obvious whose performance I very much prefer, but the important point is that both recordings have nothing in common.

I want also to disagree with Mr Blyth about the "questionable" nature of Boris' decision to undertake all three bass roles in "Boris Godunov": two monks, the pious Pimen and the drunkard Varlaam, and the tormented tsar. Considering the results, the supremely masterful portrayal of completely different characters, I see nothing questionable about the whole thing. It's true that it can't be done on the stage, because Pimen meets Boris in the end and his narrative leads to the protagonist's final (and fatal) fit. Of course it's a question of elementary editing on record. I wouldn't want to be without any of the three characters in either of the two recordings.

Nevertheless, Mr Blyth should be given credit for his, on the whole, sensible and generous assessment of Boris' discography. One must not, of course, take him very seriously, but as an advice to perfect beginners he is somewhat useful.

The Discography of Mr Walker is very useful if you are a vinyl collector; it's full of catalogue numbers that belong to the museum. It's dated "May 1991", includes almost no CD releases and it is, needless to say, quite dated. Virtually everything it contains has appeared on CD since then, including some items classified as "unpublished" (e.g. Mephistopheles' Serenade with Karajan).

Lots of previously unreleased stuff has been unearthed as well. To take but one notable example, Boris' Lugano recital from 1976 was released on CD and DVD. The latter is inexplicably cut, the camera work is absolutely horrible, and the director is a total jerk. But it remains a very important document in a field that's hardly overcrowded. At 62, Boris is naturally past his prime, and his voice has lost some of its power. But there's more than enough left: the timbre, the pianissimi, the characterisation. The DVD also contains an interesting interview with Giorgo Gualerzi (in Italian with subtitles). It's another story to hear some biographical details and reflections on his art from Boris himself.

Yet this discography is not wholly useless. It lists at least all studio recordings, plus some of the more important live/radio performances, together with dates and locations. It includes also all single arias and songs recorded by Boris, even such rarities like the album with Russian folk songs made for DG in 1975 (this was released on CD for the first time just a few years ago). All titles are in English and this may lead to some confusion with the songs, but it's no big deal. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jul 17, 2012 |
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