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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, op. 77 (1947-8, rev. 1955) [40:01]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Élégie (1944) [5:43]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, op. 64 (1888) [53:30]
Baiba Skride (violin)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 2019, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig
ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC20478 DVD [103 mins]

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto 1, which opens with a Nocturne, at first avoids virtuosity in favour of interiority. This requires at least equal sensitivity and control, which it gets here from Baiba Skride and fellow Latvian Andris Nelsons. For the start, marked Moderato, with the brief cellos and double-basses’ opening, smiling encouragement but also expectation and intensity is all conveyed by Nelsons’ eyes. The result is quiet, mysterious, yet inviting and of infinite possibility. It needs to be because there’s really no finite theme but the recurrent tweaking of this opening one to conjure up the experience of night. Shostakovich’s micro management is fascinating. Those cellos and double-basses put forward an exploratory idea, quite dance-like in its dotted crotchet plus quaver rhythm. The violin soloist (2:04, continuous timing) echoes this in a restrained, reflective manner, at first all crotchets and a minim and at a relatively lower pitch in relation to its compass, before it gathers more flow and ascent in quavers (2:44). Skride’s expressive cantilena is inviting too, but also a deep meditation, delivered in an assured, seamless flow. When the first orchestral soloist, the bassoon, enters (3:24), he plays this quavers’ ascent whilst the violin now muses again on the initial rocking dotted-crotchet/quaver figure.

Shostakovich’s orchestration is highly selective to create special moments of perception in this nightscape. The opportunity a DVD has to clarify this visually isn’t always taken up. For example, the double-bassoon enters at 4:12, adding a sudden jar to the background, but we don’t get a full view shot of it until 5:03, although it has also added to the texture at 4:26. In the violin’s role as chief focus, a lovely new phase of its exploration comes at 5:27, marked Poco meno mosso, the first tempo change. Skride and Nelsons bring a hushed quality to this soft and tender passage with short phrases repeated longingly and high tessitura reached with intrinsic rather than ostentatious conviction. When the violin floats on high B flat, the double-bassoon enters again (7:11) but we don’t see it distinct from the other bassoons (7:12), though we do see the piccolo (7:21) taking up the violin’s B flat. The next phase of the movement (7:34) has a distinctly ethereal quality because both the solo violin and strings are muted, while back in the movement’s original Moderato the progression is more delicate. Towards the end of this phase another novel perception comes with the appearance of celesta (8:37) and harp (8:42), displaying the bare bones of the theme on which the violin has expatiated. The entry of the tam-tam (9:03) adds a shiver, but at this moment the video director prefers to focus on the tuba.

At this point comes another entrancing Meno mosso passage in which the violin’s expatiation of the theme cascades down in triplets from musing high register to the rich, low one in which her solo began. At 9:43 the woodwind presents a chillier, development style, version of the cellos and double-basses’ introduction whereupon the solo violin’s melodic span, now unmuted again, becomes anguished. Those earlier, blithe triplets turn tortuous from the solo violin and soon also the now unmuted accompanying strings, boiling to a menacing climax, after which the soloist makes a resolute yet bleak statement of the opening of the theme (11:14), capped by an expressively echoing double-bassoon (11:40). The solo violin is muted again for its next entry (12:05), of the softest, yet suffering, longing and a very full statement of the theme and its heartrendingly pleading repeated elements ensues, eventually melting into fluent, yet resigned, chains of triplets. Nevertheless, the violin’s final statement opens out in questioning hope, a possibility left hanging in the air after the morendo close as Nelsons effects a wonderful eight seconds of silence - and thank you also to the audience.

I compared this with the DVD live recording of 2000 by Hilary Hahn and the Berliner Philharmoniker/Mariss Jansons (Euroarts 2020248). Timing the first movement at 12:19, they take it rather more briskly than Skride/Nelsons’ 13:34 which gives a smoother, more virtuoso impression. The cellos and basses’ opening from Jansons is just a straightforward flow. Hahn’s opening solo is lyrical, but less reflective and intense than Skride’s. Hahn is attractively fluent and clearly shaped, but less considered. However, with the faster Moderato, the two changes of tempo to Poco meno mosso are more evident, with the first of the latter eliciting movingly tender playing from Hahn and the second a lovely quality of flight of fancy in the descending triplets. In the two passages where the solo violin is muted, Hahn shows ethereal sweetness and fragility in the first and an intimate, petite tone in the second, as if curled up inside herself, before those triplets fall in repose. Jansons secures a tense, disturbing climax, more powerful than that of Nelsons, yet less menacing. Overall, Skride/Nelsons reveal more of the dark side. After the climax, Hahn’s statement of the opening of the theme is firm, rich and assured, without Skride’s bleakness. Hahn’s soft, muted passages, while truly exquisite, don’t have Skride’s pathos. I have commented on the video director of the Accentus DVD under review not always taking the opportunity to show key elements of orchestration. The Euroarts director is even less helpful: one shot of the celesta, nothing specific for double-bassoon, harp or tam-tam. At the end, Jansons settles for four seconds of silence.

Unlike the first movement, the second movement Scherzo requires and parades virtuosity, but not just for the violin but the entire orchestra. Is it playful? Skride and Nelsons emphasise its florid and dancing qualities. The first theme, a quicksilver scurry by first flute and bass clarinet, is punctuated by highly separated, crisp quaver accents from the violin playing in octaves. The violin then takes up the theme and more woodwind become involved in the accents. The violin grows merrily outlandish in extension of the theme and skittish leaps, whereas the woodwind accents transform into longer note four note motifs, like a clear statement on a banner. You can think of this as a counter-tune or at least counterbalance. It’s also Shostakovich putting himself into the music, as the motif, often in different guises, eventually turns up in low register but f in the woodwind as the notes D, E flat, C and B which in German notation spell DSCH, Dmitri Schostakovich (16:52). Why? I’d suggest it’s the composer counterbalancing, adding more rustic weight, which is even ponderous in the woodwind, while engaging with the mercurial activity, and the motifs become so central to it, exchanged by soloist and orchestra, that they become in effect a second and counter theme. This is confirmed with a Poco più mosso section (17:28) with the violin’s ff heady double-stopping, this ‘second theme’ being the motif with an extra closing two-quaver kick, soon enjoyed by the orchestra in turn and finally attaining a supercharged phase and extension with the arrival of xylophone and tambourine (18:18), which we don’t quite get to see at that moment in this DVD - but the eagle-eyed can spot the tambourine at 18:20 and closer up at 18:27, while the xylophone is briefly seen from 18:25 and 18:30. In high register the violin becomes sunnier to crest this brouhaha, reclaiming the proceedings and then slipping into sober low register to stream into the recapitulation of the first theme (19:20). The orchestral activity is now more intensely pointed, but from the return of the Poco più mosso supercharged extension it’s always the violin that’s the mistress of ceremonies.

Hahn/Jansons, timing at 5:42 to Skride/Nelsons’ 6:37, present a more restive, splenetic Scherzo of assertive virtuosity. There’s a ruthlessness as well as resolve about the woodwind and the Poco più mosso sections are more combative. The video director gives us no view of the xylophone or tambourine but their contributions are clear. There’s the sparkle of Skride/Nelsons but with added fire, a febrile brilliance and excitement worked to an electrifying close, an account more characteristic of Shostakovich. Skride/Nelsons’ offer a different, quite fresh and refreshing, view, with appreciable pointing of light and shade, easier to live with in celebrating the deftness of Shostakovich’s counterpoint. To achieve this, the intensity of concentration by Nelsons and the orchestra is notable, with Skride in contrast calmly enjoying the challenge and interplay.

One argument in favour of having a lighter Scherzo is that this sets in greater relief the gauntness of the following Passacaglia whose solemn theme, in cellos and basses, is quite long yet patiently reflective for all its weight. This first presentation is also the first variation of the Passacaglia as over it four horns add stately fanfares and the timpani variously supports both elements. The overall effect from Nelsons is firm and resolute. In Variation 2 (23:16) richness and depth of sound is further emphasised as the theme is played by tuba and third bassoon over which cor anglais, clarinets and first and second bassoon present a chorale and the tuba in the foreground of the picture (23:26) is notable. The dignity of the theme is mellowed by the human, supplicating quality of the chorale, especially the cor anglais at the top of the melodic spectrum (pictured from 20:40). Nelson’s concentration has now become prayerful, often he is almost closing his eyes. Skride enters at Variation 3 (24:20) with a meltingly expressive new theme which also responds to, or meditates on, the Passacaglia one. She introduces such individual and personal empathy in this soulful cantilena I’d be happy to remain with it, but the piece has to progress. In Variation 4 (25:23) the solo violin extends the meditation while its theme is taken up perhaps a little over firmly here by cor anglais, clarinet and two bassoons, somewhat fracturing the violin’s spell, albeit Skride continues very sweetly in the background. In Variation 5 (26:26) the solo horn has the Passacaglia theme, while the violin’s contribution, often played in octaves, becomes more passionate. In Variation 6 (27:22) the Passacaglia theme profile becomes denser on horns, tuba and pizzicato cellos and basses, while the solo violin urges forward in triplets. Variation 7 (28:19) is the movement’s climax to which the violin has been working since Variation 5. The soloist presents the Passacaglia theme ff while the violins and violas play the chorale and the lower strings provide counterpoint. In Variation 8 (29:17) Skride repeats her opening theme of Variation 3, now in lower register, the reflection richer to tweaked orchestral scoring, the backcloth thus more serene. The coming on of repose is brought in Variation 9 (30:15) by the Passacaglia’s theme being presented very quietly by pizzicato strings and timpani while Skride takes up the horns’ fanfares from Variation 1 which appear increasingly fragmented. A coda seems to continue this deconstruction and Skride/Nelsons bring a growing appreciation of silent surroundings which lead to a long cadenza. This begins with mulling over those horn fanfares from the Passacaglia’s Variation 1, now p ma maestoso, to which Skride brings a riveting sense of inner communing in their richness and gentleness, relieved by the airy quality of the chains of triplets you may recall such as in the first movement. Later there are allusions to Shostakovich’s name motif and the Scherzo themes. Skride shows this all concentratedly gathered together. The progression through a long crescendo is spellbinding and spiced with angry dissonance as the experience grows more fraught with frequent double stopping of emotional jarring, rather than virtuoso, effect before sets of wild glissandi catapult you into the finale.

Hahn/Jansons, timing the Passacaglia up to the cadenza at 9:20 against Skride/Nelsons’ timing of 9:57, is for me too swift in Variation 1 which thereby emphasises a neat rather than stark grandeur. In Variation 2 a smoother sound is preferred, with the tuba not pictured, though it is shown in Variation 6. Hahn’s entrance cantilena is captivating in its very soft, delicate portrait of a wandering soul, but ultimately Skride’s presentation has more depth. However, in Variation 4 the balance between Hahn and the woodwind is better, creating an appreciable unified smoothness and empathy. In Variation 7 Hahn is emphatically resolute, but in Variation 8, although Hahn’s lower register presentation is appropriately rich, the orchestral scoring appears too dense to achieve the serenity of background Nelsons does. It’s Hahn who achieves serenity of repose in Variation 9. In timing the cadenza at 5:07, Hahn is indistinguishable from Skride’s 5:05. But Hahn’s opening gentle musing, lovely as it is, doesn’t come with Skride’s richness and Hahn’s triplets lack the buoyancy of Skride’s. Hahn’s account of the cadenza is accomplished but, not as internalized as Skride’s, emerges as a meditation without the sheer rawness and drama that Skride conveys.

Regarding the Allegro con brio finale, entitled Burlesque, Nelsons’ face at the beginning says it all: “Now let’s enjoy ourselves.” The rondo theme becomes effectively here, with Nelsons’ and the video director’s blessing, a fortissimo xylophone solo with woodwind doubling and full orchestral support. This is fitting, because Shostakovich originally scored the beginning for violin solo before dedicatee David Oistrakh begged for a breather after the cadenza. The violin enters with the first episode (37:38) with clarinet in hot pursuit and it’s heartening to see Skride keeping a watchful eye to be sure they make a zanily matched partnership. The violin has the rondo theme return, then shares the second episode (37:53) with orchestra, a dance with string offbeat accents, soon mixed with the rondo theme again. The third episode (38:22) begins with more extended and discordant accents in the orchestra, alongside which the violin can charm. The next rondo theme presentation has a very bright, vivaciously dancing Skride over a skeletal orchestra, after which (39:13) she goes off on a very light and sportive variation of the rondo theme. Episode 4 (39:28) is a sonorous, powerful interjection from the orchestral wind, lightened a little but insistently rhythmic in the strings, Nelsons urging them to strain the sustained notes. Skride tries to lighten things a little further, becoming more musing in manner, but an especially startling but also stimulating moment now (40:21) again features the xylophone with two clarinets, soon pursued by first horn, all quoting the opening of the Passacaglia theme, ff in caustic high register. Skride keeps a dancing focus on the rondo motif while the orchestra is itself in dancing free-for-all in a Presto peroration in which the first and second horns (41:50) give us one final reminder of the Passacaglia theme.

The finale by Hahn/Jansons really is breathtaking yet, timing at 4:36, only marginally faster than Skride/Nelsons’ 4:48. My preference is for the latter’s greater rhythmic incisiveness over the former’s emphasis on virtuosity. We don’t see Jansons’ xylophone until that late Passacaglia theme quote and the Berlin Phil woodwind here don’t make as piquant a sound as the Leipzig Gewandhaus. We don’t see the clarinet either in that early partnership with the soloist and you feel it’s every man for himself and, of course, lady for herself. In the third episode I miss Skride’s charm: Hahn has some, but it’s of an edgy variety. Where Skride dances in the rondo theme presentation, Hahn ever presses forward.

Should you follow this DVD’s front and back covers, booklet notes and not play it continuously after the concerto, you could miss Stravinsky’s Élégie, Skride’s encore, though it is listed on page 4 of the booklet and in the DVD chapter headings. Similarly, if you were looking for a performance of this on DVD, of which as far as I know there is no other, you’ll not find it listed in the Presto database. Stravinsky’s piece makes for an interesting comparison with the Shostakovich finale cadenza. It’s about the same length, far less varied and overtly virtuosic, yet also requires intense concentration and the ability to reflect. Effectively, it’s in two-part counterpoint and finds Stravinsky looking back to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. It was originally written for solo viola but also published a fifth higher for violin. The outer sections are marked tranquillo cantabile. Its soft opening incorporates a display: the ‘shake’ ornament in the upper part over treading quavers. At once, then, it’s a celebration suffused with moments of reverence, affection and sadness. Skride treats the ‘shake’ lightly and smoothly and emphasises the legato flow of the melody and thereby the graceful stability and consolation of the ritual memorial.  The substantial central section, poco marcato, espressivo ma non forte, is more angular and rawer, effectively providing variation and extension of the opening melody, an increasingly forthright outpouring. Skride explores the tragic heart of the melody and opens it out to reveal the pain. The forte climax (47:59) is immediately followed by a subito piano and then Skride brings great pathos to the quiet, simple, single part statement of the beginning of the melody. The repeat of the opening section (48:57) is now more savoured by Skride, more solemn and desolate, partly owing to Stravinsky’s tweaking of the ending.

The concert and DVD end with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 5, a work so well-known I shall concentrate on what are for me key passages in every movement as the basis for comparing Nelsons’ performance with a classic predecessor. In the first movement my selected passage is that which completes the exposition, marked Un Pochettino più animato (Eulenburg score bars 154-213). It begins with the crotchet-quaver lilt of a fast dance (56:48) which is the transitional springboard to the syncopated slow dance of the Molto più tranquillo third theme (57:09), the loveliest and happiest in the movement, marked in the violins molto cantabile ed espressione. Nelsons observes the fast dance eagerly and charmingly savours the slow one, with its balance between the rising woodwind and falling violins as clear as if it were a pointed teaching demonstration, followed by an emphatic ending to the exposition taking in a stringendo to the opening Allegro tempo and fff surges of climax.

The performance I use for comparison is the live one by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1974 (DG Unitel Classics 0734511). The notable difference is the greater passion Bernstein displays, where with Nelsons you’re aware of his control, masterminding the proceedings with scrupulous following of the score. Bernstein conducts without score and sometimes is less scrupulous, but you feel he’s totally inhabiting the music. So, his fast dance has more tension but less contrast between the alternating passages for woodwind and strings, save that he slows down the final strings’ response, not marked in the score, to make a smoother path for the third theme. To this he brings a more gorgeous lilt, emphasising the violins’ shaping with more longing, as is seen filling his face while his following stringendo and the fff surges are fierier and more explosive. The electricity in Bernstein’s account eludes Nelsons for all, or because of, his scrupulousness.  Bernstein throws caution to the winds and there are times like here that’s just how Tchaikovsky should be conducted.

There is, however, another narrative in this symphony to be considered: the motto theme first heard in its introduction and reappearing in every movement. How does the conductor show this idée fixe, to use Berlioz’s term in the innovation of it in his Symphonie fantastique, transform in the progress of the work? What is it anyway? A clue is that the opening theme of the Allegro is a kind of normalization of it, a cheerier version on clarinet and bassoon, as if getting on with life relieved from the introduction’s pondering on its meaning. Nelsons makes this contrast stronger and pleasanter than Bernstein, but at the cost of a more dismal introduction, with the stress on the heavy trudge of the descending phrases in the two clarinet soloists and accompanying strings. After this the crescendos are ominous and finally the two sforzandos on the lowest note of the phrases are jolts. Nelsons’ face is a sad vision, but I feel it’s one of an unexplained disquiet. Bernstein’s more dramatic approach is easier to relate to, with crescendos more menacing, while you’re more aware of the repetition of phrases. The sforzandos have more venom: you see Bernstein signing the second with an emphatic stab.

The second movement, Andante cantabile, opens with a different solo, a famous one for horn, though interestingly it comes as part of a package, preceded by an atmospheric introduction and followed by making common cause with the second theme (1:09:37). Nelsons provides a mysterious introduction, his horn soloist a mellifluous, beautifully sung solo, emotive yet with the dynamic swells marked at the apexes of its phrases smoothly and subtly conveyed. Come its third phrase, the solo horn gets a supporting companion, the clarinet, and I like that the video director makes this clear immediately. When the oboe begins the second theme, the horn immediately echoes it, even when its second phrase rises high and the horn takes full advantage of Tchaikovsky’s sostenuto marking at the apex of that second phrase repeat. Comparing Bernstein, I like his greater sense of direction in the introduction, but prefer Nelsons’ soloists for conveying more personal involvement.

Nevertheless, the key passage in this movement is from the arrival of the third theme (bar 67) to the end. The third theme (1:12:56) begins as a lull of lovely arabesques flowing from clarinet to bassoon, but then the strings exchange its opening notes more urgently until a stringendo plunges us into the first reappearance of the motto theme (1:14:28), now fff, very powerful, weighty and confident, the tuba’s contribution prominent and visible here. Nelsons’ face shows he wants the maximum tension. Then a short passage of strings’ pizzicato is the transition to the recapitulation of the opening horn theme on the first violins with embellishment from oboe and before long all the woodwind and horns. Nelsons does this well, with a pure, Mozartian beauty of decoration combined with clarity of texture. All this is but a prelude to the climax (1:17:34) of the second theme, which proves to be that at the heart of this movement and this now receives the second reappearance of the motto theme, now sterner, or perhaps respectful before a sighing close, something between its original close and the elaboration of the second theme, which finally returns, pp, even softer than its first appearance as the nature of its presence comes full circle. Nelsons’ control is satisfying here as it matches that of Tchaikovsky’s structure.

Timing this passage at 7:47, Bernstein is somewhat faster than Nelsons’ 8:15 and I think this is to Nelsons’ advantage. Bernstein doesn’t get the contrast of a lull at the arrival of the third theme; it’s keenly and earnestly projected straightaway and the strings’ take-up is immediately torrid. Bernstein’s first motto reappearance is like a cavalry charge with trumpets dominating, crisper but less weighty than Nelsons. Bernstein’s recap of the horn theme is less successful than Nelsons. Bernstein’s violins are rather harsh and the solo oboe not well related to them. The woodwind instruments don’t coalesce and blend with the strings as they gather. There’s no Mozartian beauty because the violins are too dominant. Nevertheless, Bernstein’s second theme climax blazes well and tautly. Bernstein’s second reappearance of the motto theme is fierce and here Bernstein’s fast tempo is compelling, but the closing sighs should be softer and the over-emotive return of the second theme misses Nelsons’ tender solicitude.

The third movement Waltz is essentially a relaxed interlude between movements of high tension, but because it’s a dance it’s still active and Nelsons is eager to make this clear. What comes across well is the woodwind getting involved after the strings’ first dolce con grazia presentation, so you get the feel of focussing on individual dancers after the whole ballroom. The codetta, begun by the first bassoon (1:22:57), tricksy and nonchalant, is a neat transition to the central section (1:23:18) which is niftier with strings’ semiquaver runs marked spiccato assai everywhere. I feel Nelsons’ approach is a little too intent here, with the woodwind crotchet phrase balancing a bit stern, but this does make the return of the opening theme cheerier and comforting. The third reappearance of the motto theme on clarinet and two bassoons (1:26:57) is like an objective character, “I’m observing, not invading”, but Nelsons’ closing chords have the dancers emphatically stating “We’re in charge.”

Bernstein, timing the Waltz at 6:12 to Nelsons’ 5:45, is marginally more relaxed, especially as he achieves more contrast by having a lighter and faster central section with admirably dexterous playing from strings and woodwind alike. In the outer sections, the Boston players turn on the style while the layering of the melody and accompaniment is still clear. What doesn’t work so well is the codetta, where Bernstein’s conducting indicates more coyness in the rhythmic trickery than the players seem happy to provide, but the first oboe beams at the return of the opening melody; Bernstein takes the coda a little faster and less grandiosely than Nelsons, to advantage. The motto return here insinuates itself as a warm presence, but then begins to press, whereupon it’s firmly rejected.

When you’re familiar with the finale, you’re happy to be immersed in its closing celebrations, but sometimes you might wonder whether these have really been earned within the symphony. Nelsons’ solution is to make the Andante maestoso introduction, the fourth reappearance of the motto theme, dark, gruff, weighty, its softer elements pained, a steady, concerned progress of indomitable perseverance, immensity and resilience. The finale’s new material Allegro vivace and main, first theme (1:30:52) then becomes a venting of frustration and thereby release, but its softer woodwind elements have from the Leipzig woodwind more spurred endeavour than joy. The woodwind brings to the second theme (1:32:00) a chorale quality, but it’s still smoothed forward and tension maintained. The fifth reappearance of the motto (1:32:42) comes within a maelstrom of strings, earning the triumph. Nelsons makes the becalming at the end of the development haunting, enabling the main theme blasted out at the recapitulation to be welcome. The sixth reappearance of the motto (1:37:13), just the opening veiled within the tempestuous surroundings, proves a final preparation for its grandest Moderato assai e molto maestoso seventh statement, which Nelsons treats quite swiftly but with a confident sweep: the swirls of the 2 flutes and piccolo are especially enjoyable. At the closing Molto meno mosso in the coda the trumpets (1:39:58), followed by horns, blazon the first movement’s first theme to show the work has come full circle.

Bernstein’s introduction has a rich, velvety strength and dignity, a hymn-like quality in revealing the orchestra’s unanimity, already assured. It ignores the problem of how the motto suddenly transforms like this, but it’s attractive. The first theme is crisp and fiery, but of an exhilarating, not splenetic kind, the softer woodwind elements have an engaging adrenalin. The second theme is a buoyant continuation. The fifth reappearance of the motto is sheer verve in compelling momentum and even the strings’ storms radiate. The end of development becalming is less marked and effective than with Nelsons, but the brief sixth appearance of the motto is clearer. The seventh statement is more measured, as marked, the comparative timing being 1:48 to Nelsons’ 1:26: Bernstein makes it a march of thanksgiving and the satisfying zenith of the entire work. Then the more contrasted Presto coda is more exciting and the trumpets and horns’ recall of the first movement theme more striking. In sum, Bernstein’s finale gets you more involved.

The glory of this DVD is Baiba Skride’s ability to internalize Shostakovich’s cantilena and convey it with moving eloquence, while also delivering the virtuoso material with stunning assurance. Nelsons conducts Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky with perceptible insight, but I feel is sometimes hindered by trying too hard: I admire his endeavour, but don’t experience the elation Bernstein exudes.

Michael Greenhalgh

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