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165 of 168 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A bargain. Perfect for both "beginners" and compleatists.
I am actually more than mildly surprised to see this boxed set of the Shostakovich symphonies, performed by Rudolf Barshai and the Southwest Radio Orchestra (Germany) listed here. Brilliant Classics is not a label that gets wide distribution (although one can find releases on this label if one knows where to look).
Any – perhaps every – collector of the...
Published on 21 Aug 2003 by Bob Zeidler

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50 of 57 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding value
This complete set of Shostakovich symphonies bears the stamp of authority from a conductor who knew the composer and who gave the first performance of the 14th Symphony. Affection for and understanding of the music are evident everywhere, although not all the recordings would be first choices and some of the playing leaves a lot to be desired. However, for an inexpensive...
Published on 11 Jan 2006


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165 of 168 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A bargain. Perfect for both "beginners" and compleatists., 21 Aug 2003
By 
Bob Zeidler (Charlton, MA United States) - See all my reviews
I am actually more than mildly surprised to see this boxed set of the Shostakovich symphonies, performed by Rudolf Barshai and the Southwest Radio Orchestra (Germany) listed here. Brilliant Classics is not a label that gets wide distribution (although one can find releases on this label if one knows where to look).
Any – perhaps every – collector of the Shostakovich symphonies can put together a listing of his or her favorite performances, work-by-work, without once referring to this Barshai boxed set. I know that I can, and that such a listing for me would include performances by Bernstein (the 5th), Gergiev (the 7th) Haitink (several, but most especially the 8th and the 15th), both Janssons and Karajan (the 10th), Ormandy (the 4th), Rostropovich (the 11th, in his new LSO Live recording), Stokowski (the 1st and the 11th) and Zander (the 5th). All of these (and more) are already in my library, and I wouldn't want to be without any of them.
But all of this is beside the point. In virtually every way (including performance and sonics), these Barshai recordings are highly competitive, and, as an integral complete set, are topped only by the Haitink set (at considerably higher cost). Barshai, for many years, was a close associate of Shostakovich (and the arranger of, among other pieces, Shostakovich's remarkable 8th Quartet for chamber orchestra as his "Chamber Symphony"), and he has this music in his blood. This long personal association means that Barshai understands not only what we have come to call "authentic performance practice," but all of the myriad "hidden meanings" to be found in this most autobiographical of composers.
Overall, the weaknesses are very few. The packaging is Spartan, and the documentation even less than that. If I continue to prefer Haitink for the 8th and 15th Symphonies, it is by the smallest of margins. Ditto for Gergiev in the 7th Symphony. Everywhere else, Barshai elicits performances that are truly "top drawer," with recorded sound to match. And how often will one go out of one's way to obtain recordings of Shostakovich's 2nd and 3rd Symphonies on a full-price label? Not often at all, meaning that most people miss these two works entirely. Not that they are Shostakovich at his best (particularly with their "agitprop" finales), but I must confess that there are some pleasant surprises in the early movements of the Shostakovich 2nd Symphony, written during his most "experimental" phase and sounding quite like Charles Ives in places: "Gorky Park in the Dark" might be a clever way of putting matters.
Those already having good collections of the symphonies are probably already aware of this bargain box, and will get it (or have already gotten it) just for its comprehensiveness and uniformity of interpretation and quality. Those just starting out to discover Shostakovich and his symphonies could hardly do better than acquire this bargain box: For about what one would normally pay for just three or four of the symphonies on full-price labels, you can have the full set of works by Barshai, and begin your journey comfortable with the fact that these are authoritative performances by an acknowledged Shostakovich master.
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62 of 65 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars There are better - but not at this price!, 8 Jan 2004
By 
Gerard Lynch "paddingtonw2bear" (Belfast, Northern Ireland) - See all my reviews
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Barshai and Shostakovich were long associates, and Barshai's farmiliarity shows right through this set, which pulls the best out of a mid-ranking German regional orchestra. The real strengths of this set are its remarkable consistency of conducting, playing and sound quality over such a long cycle - none of it absolutely mindblowing, but all of it very good. The discs were originally released as single CDs over a 6 year period which probably helped keep conductor and orchestra fresh.
Its main rivals are the Naxos CSPO set which, sorry, doesn't begin to compare either in terms of performance or recording quality, and the Haitinck which costs considerably more.
It is thin on background material, but then again so much Shostakovich background remains disputed that most synopses fall down by presenting only one side of the argument anyway.
This boxed set has become my 'core' set for symphonies by my favourite composer - and it costs barely more than a full price version of a single long symphony. Just don't give yourself indigestion if you're new to Shostakovich - 5, 7, 10 and this wonderful interpretation of 15 are the ones to start with. The 'clockwork' fading out at the end of the last symphony, with Shostakovich aware that he way dying, is absolutely haunting.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Some of the best Shostakovich performances on record, 3 Nov 2006
By 
Mr. Christian Hoskins (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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The performances and recordings in this set vary between good and outstanding. For me, symphonies 4, 6 and 8 are the most impressive. I have never heard the first movement of the 6th Symphony played with such glowing intensity, whilst the 8th Symphony rivals the 1960 Mravinsky performance recorded by the BBC. Most of the other symphonies are also given first class performances. The least impressive performances are probably the 5th and 11th symphonies, which are a little unexciting, and the 7th where Barshai sounds unconvinced by the ending. (No recording of the 7th matches Bernstein's 1987 performance on DG.) However, taken as a whole this is most impressive. Orchestral playing and recording quality are also excellent.
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102 of 111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars INTERPRETATIONS, 16 Nov 2004
By 
DAVID BRYSON (Glossop Derbyshire England) - See all my reviews
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As a rule I avoid complete sets. I own performances of all the symphonies of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Sibelius, for instance, but selected individually. Shostakovich seems to me a slightly different case. His music appears to me to be something of a diary of his feelings, and when it came to his string quartets I found it helpful to listen to them in sequence played by the same group, so I have taken the same approach now with his symphonies. These are a more complex issue than the quartets are, because there were external influences, to put it mildly, on the content of the symphonies. He had to dance a grim paso doble with the Soviet authorities regarding these, and even without that he lived through a grisly era that is to some extent recorded in the symphonies through his own volition. I've also taken the view that a detailed assessment of 15 symphonies on 11 discs, including individual comparisons with other versions, is beyond the scope of a short review. All I would say in general is that there is not a bad performance in all this large set, and that Barshai's readings at least stand comparison with other first-class readings of individual symphonies that I have heard recently from Haitink, Previn, Karajan, Andrew Davis and Rozhdestvensky. Barshai was the composer's pupil, he gave the premiere of the 14th symphony, he was intimately associated with this music all his life, he understands it with the marrow of his bones, and I can recommend his set unreservedly to anyone wanting to gain a better insight into the life's work of this grand and gloomy 20th century master.
Open any book or article on Shostakovich and you will reliably find a lot of comment on WWII, on Leningrad, on Stalin, on Zhdanov and on conditions in the Soviet Union. What one normally has to search hard for is much enlightening comment on the music itself. Anything said about that is usually along perfunctory lines about symphonic allegros and sonata form and the like. The trouble set in with Beethoven. Comment on Beethoven tends to be long on his personal struggles and triumphs, but the music does at least get a decent innings from the commentators. Beecham complained that Beethoven was the first to take away from music its natural idiom and expression. Put less provocatively, it could be said that Beethoven imported into music personal emotion that is external to the music as such. This developed in two ways. One was via Wagner's music-drama, the other was via Liszt and symphonic poems in which purely instrumental music was made to represent or evoke elements external to the music, and Shostakovich stands at the end of this second line. (There was actually a third way, represented by Brahms who really turned his back on this whole aspect of Beethoven's legacy whatever they tell us to the contrary, but that is another story). I find that one problem in understanding Shostakovich is that the commentators in general talk about his biography and about Soviet history under the impression that they are talking about the music. You will find the dilemma (or trilemma) illustrated beautifully here in Dr Doughty's notes on the first movement of the 4th symphony - `...although it cannot be related to traditional sonata form, it is an amazing tour de force ranging from the triumphs of the new industrialisation of the Soviet Union to the sadness of the Russian soul.' I can see how music can range from triumph to sadness, but I can't see how music can range from or to industrialisation to or from anything whatsoever, nor can I see what any of this has to do with sonata form nor indeed what sonata form matters to start with. The music of Shostakovich always seems to be telling us something, but in the first place it is not easy to be sure what. We can grasp the general mood, but the specifics are harder. The only person who can enlighten us reliably on those is the composer himself, should he choose to. There are three completely different accounts from him regarding what the 7th symphony is about, in my view they are not compatible, and I conclude from that that we ought to shift the focus back from this kind of thing on to the actual music, which after all is pretty commanding stuff. There is a movement in symphony 12 that purportedly evokes Lenin's headquarters, for instance. Now I know what the music of headquarters sounds like I suppose, but I find the movement in question means more to me without that concept, and indeed I believe that headquarters are as unmusical a concept as hindquarters.
These 15 symphonies are the story of a great and anguished soul who expressed his grief, fear and outrage through music. After the first 3 symphonies the tone is of almost unrelieved gloom and bitterness, the occasional lighter stretches having about them the feel of `if I didn't laugh I would weep'. Symphonies 13 and 14 suggest to me that he had wrung these emotions dry, and symphony 15 seems a self-parodistic farewell to the whole symphonic scene. These dark emotions are voiced in a music of almost brutal power, without any great sense of development in the actual idiom but with a grim consistency that is easier to follow than the chameleon-like changes of style in his concertos. I'm interested to know what lay behind its composition, but I'm content also to leave the details of that unresolved. Barshai is an expert Virgil taking us through this dark world, the recording is very good (with notable clarity from the voices) and the whole experience is available for a very modest outlay if we feel up to it.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great value, 27 Feb 2004
By 
S. F. Law "Shostakovich nut" (Hampshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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I agree with the oether reviewers, but would cite the performance of the 13th as being possibly the finest in the set; it certainly is the best recording since the legendary Kondrashin/Melodiya version; Barshai scores highly here not only for picking an outstanding soloist, but mostly for his choice of a genuine Russian chorus which gives added authenticity to this marvellous score.
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50 of 57 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding value, 11 Jan 2006
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This complete set of Shostakovich symphonies bears the stamp of authority from a conductor who knew the composer and who gave the first performance of the 14th Symphony. Affection for and understanding of the music are evident everywhere, although not all the recordings would be first choices and some of the playing leaves a lot to be desired. However, for an inexpensive collection of Shostakovich's symphonic output, this set represents outstanding value and vastly preferable to the equivalent set from Ladislav Slovak on Naxos.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A New Year's Bargain!, 6 Dec 2006
By 
E. A. Redfearn "eredfearn2" (Middlesbrough) - See all my reviews
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Before I begin, I have to say there is no such thing as a perfect box set. This is because no two orchestras sound the same, and no two conductors can share the same interpretations. But, as so often has been proved over the years, there have been some which have come almost near to perfection.

Mahler, Beethoven, Mozart, and now Shostakovich have all been well served by numerous box sets of CDs over the years. This one is a very fine box set indeed, and can be bought at a superb price which shouldnt be missed.

The first symphony is played very well here, with good spacious sound, Bashai maintaining a consistant tempi throughout allowing the listener to become absorbed into the music. Two and Three are not popular symphonies although they are adequatly served here. The Fourth however, one of Shostakovich's most supreme works, doesnt quite match the very fine Eugene Ormandy's Philadelphia version first recorded in 1961. That remains the definitive version, although Bashai does manage to convey a sense of tension and drama throughout the long final movement. The Fifth, and Sixth are very good indeed, although may not be to everyones taste, and perhaps might not match the now deleted Andre Previn's fine performance from 1966.

The Seventh Symphony, labelled the Leningrad is exciting, and moves along at a superb pace. But the Bernstein version does go further in its dramatic and emotional content. (This is highlighted in the closing bars of the First Movement which has been difficult to surpass since its initial recording dated from 1967 by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.)

As for the Eighth Symphony, (Stalingrad) Bashai excels himself here, for this is one of the best versions I have ever heard. The sound and the performance is amazing and takes ones breath away. A superb interpretation all round, Wonderful!

The rest of the symphonies are more than adequate, even taking into account some of the weakest music Shostakovich composed, such as parts of the 11th, 12th and the 13th.

Even if you already have some versions of these works such as I have, it is still a very good buy however, great price, great sound, what more could you wish for?
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good choice for novices and experienced audiophiles., 22 Feb 2007
By 
Mr. A. D. Brown "Andrew Brown" (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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I was introduced to the work of Dimitri Shostakovich purely by chance after hearing a small piece of his 8th Symphony in a film. I wanted to hear more of his work - and if you do too, then this set is a great place to start. It contains all of his major symphonies and Rudolf Barshai does a very good job of replicating most of the works as near as possible to how Shostakovich may have wanted them to be performed. I have compared some of the works to other recordings by different orchestras and conductors and they seem slow and lethargic in comparison. Having listened to works where Shostakovich himself has been involved in the performances, this again confirms the theory for me. There are some pieces that are relatively easy listening and others - including the choral elements, that require a bit more concentration when listening (you need to be in the mood) but voices are not used greatly when considering all the music you get. Each CD has notes to allow you to put the music into context which are helpful. Following events in Russia at the time whilst listening to the music will also add an extra perspective. As an introduction to Shostakovich, this set cannot be beaten as it is also good value for money. After a time, you will have two or three Cds that you will listen to regularly and keep the rest for that occasional break from the norm. The joy of this set is that there is enough variety there for you able to do this and not worry about buying a set that you may only ever listen to once. I can recommend this set very highly to anyone wishing to discover more works by Shostakovich without breaking the bank.

Further listening:

When you have tried this set, you might want to look at the composer's lighter side by listening to his jazz suite, ballet suites and film music. If you ant to get really heavy, you could try Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - an opera based on the Shakespeare play. If you want to listen to this, it will help if you have got a copy with an English translation and have a basic knowledge of the plot of the original Macbeth play.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great price - but not a first choice, 21 Feb 2009
By 
R. Wiley (Beijing) - See all my reviews
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I bought this mainly because of the great price but to be honest I find it disappointing. The performances don't really "take flight" for me. Number 8 is quite anaemic when compared with others, particularly Mravinsky in any of his recordings. If you want only one complete cycle look elsewhere, I suggest Kondrashin, although he has his weaknesses, is a much better choice and much more authentically "Russian". If price is your main consideration then this is a bargain - buy it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thought provoking and illuminating set of readings of persuasive perception, 8 Nov 2013
By 
I. Giles (Argyll, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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The individual reviews of symphonies 4, 5, 6, 9, 10 and 15 listed below, being the most familiar along with 1 and 8, are intended to give specific responses to those key works as a guide as to what to expect from the whole set.

Readers will also note that there are several reviewers of the whole set that have awarded a full five stars but within more general terms of reference.

By using both this and the other reviews, readers should be able to obtain a pretty clear idea of the whole set on offer.

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Symphony 4

This disc, well recorded in 1996, was bought as a sampler of the complete set having so far not found a fully satisfying version of this symphony. Barshai comes as close as any of the others and closer than many others that I have tried.

The performance could be described as being played 'straight' without any distortions of tempo. Points are not made aggressively and the music, which is certainly a powerful piece of writing, is allowed to communicate on its own terms. The playing of the orchestra is of a particularly high standard and is compelling as is Barshai's own vision of the work.

In general terms the tempi are kept on the move and the symphony does not suffer from any lapses of tension. The tempi of the fugal section for the strings in the first movement for example can only be described as hair-raisingly fast and, given the virtuosity of the string section, the result is gripping to say the least! Barshai brings to this score a personal knowledge of the composer and that added understanding comes over with authority.

This joins the Jarvi, Jansons (only when played at an increased playback level as it is cut very low) and a Gergiev BBC 'live proms' recording (not the Philips disc) as the most successful that I have heard so far.

I would suggest that the box set is likely to be even more attractive than this single disc if this is typical of the whole set.

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Symphonies 5 and 6

This pair of recordings, made in 1995 -1996, offer good honest sound consistent with their age and 'live' performances. The sixth is very good sound indeed, thoroughly involving with considerable 'presence.' The fifth is also good although although the rhythmical piano part in the first movement seems odd texturally. On the other hand, the plucked strings heard elsewhere are remarkably realistic. Overall the recorded sound is no good reason to reject these performances.

The tendency for Barshai to press on with generally fast tempi is not the case in either of these symphonies. I would describe the tempi as being very main-stream. Barshai takes a severe line with the climatic points and is able to then release the tension resolving it to passages of considerable beauty.

An example would be the first movement climax of the fifth symphony which reaches an almost crushing peak of tension to be followed by the extreme opposite with the pair of solo flutes. The second movement adopts a perfect tempo and the Mahler influence is easy to detect in the woodwind writing in this movement. The Largo is sublime but rises once more to a significant climax and the last movement, ending at a crushingly slow tempo as found in Sanderling for example, leaves one in no doubt that any triumph here is utterly shallow.

The end of the fifth symphony was described by the composer as follows: 'I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the fifth .... It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying "Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing" and you rise, shakily, and go off muttering "Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing".'

Barshai gets this across with crushing authority.

The sixth symphony is arguably the best version I have heard. The first movement towers over the rest but, instead of being lightweight continuations, Barshai makes sure that the tension is maintained in the last two movements with a driven and desperate approach which makes the link with the fifth clear and aware that here too is a political message in code. This is an astonishing concept and delivery and makes other performances seem neat and trivial by contrast.

This is a fine disc and well worth searching out for those who do not wish to buy the whole set.

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Symphonies 9 and 10

This pair of performances from 1995 and 1996 are seemingly typical of Barshai's approach to many of these symphonies in so far as he favours generally faster speeds than many coupled with tight articulation and combined with an urgency that marks his performances out from the rest.

In this case the ninth symphony is taken at some very fast speeds indeed. The three faster movements, 1, 3 and 5, especially requiring some virtuosity from his stalwart orchestra. The third movement in particular practically flies. However, these are far from lightweight performances as the crisp articulation and tight rhythmical control lends a sense of urgency, even desperation, to this often performed as lightweight symphony. It is often forgotten that this symphony also got Shostakovich in trouble with the censors who totally disapproved of its content and mood.

The sense of urgency continues with the tenth symphony, one of his greatest achievements in this field. In this case tempi are not far from the norm so the added sense of urgency comes as somewhat surprising as that effect is achieved through phrasing and articulation rather than through speed. The short second movement has the perfect pace and the second section featuring the 'dies irae' theme sustains the tension without any sense of lost impact or dramatic impact resulting from marginally too slow a tempo.

Only the slow third movement could be thought of lacking in urgency, its emptiness instead rising to implied threat at the climax before subsiding. The fourth movement, by contrast, starts off in a very jaunty manner. However, this is transformed at the mid point after the slow central section. The return to the first subject's faster speed for the final section is taken more deliberately than when first heard and any sense of jauntiness is dispelled as the final bars are approached with the more normal sense of building excitement.

These are impressive and compelling readings which throw a different light on the works and which presumably reflect Barshai's responses in having personal knowledge of the composer. His view should not be lightly dismissed by those not having lived at the same time and place as Shostakovich.

...................................

Symphony 15

This is a well recorded performance made in 1998 and which differs markedly from many of the alternatives. At this point it should be mentioned that Barshai knew Shostakovich well and that knowledge and experience should not be discounted when considering this alternative view.

Essentially Barshai takes a far fleeter view of the work than many of the other conductors and this has an effect on the character of the piece. The climaxes are arrived at speedily with insistence. There is an air of the sort of desperation felt by someone in a hurry and who has no time to waste. This is absolutely not the same as some of the slower and heavier approaches which suggest the weight of autocratic authority bearing down remorselessly.

Thus the contrast between Barshai's driven, incisive but lighter weight climaxes towards the ends of the second and fourth movements are then followed by the ticking idea which has an emptiness resulting from the lack of drive. This is at least as effective as the emptiness felt after a weighty and overbearing climax as in other performances.

Shostakovich made significant but largely unexplained references to Wagner (Siegfried's death) as well as to his own personal motif, DSCH, which regularly features in his other works. The Rossini quote in the first movement is also unexplained but the composer did comment that the movement should be played as in a toy shop. Maybe he had in mind a puppet's as in Coppelia or Petrushka where the puppets are manipulated by other unseen hands. It should be remembered that William Tell was also a successful revolutionary.

I found this to be a thought provoking, perceptive and satisfying reading, both well played and recorded, which provides illumination on an otherwise unexplained enigma of a composition. It has an aura of authority about it which should not be ignored. It therefore deserves to be considered seriously and is well worth adding to collections on that basis. Much the same can be said of the incisively driven Barshai readings of symphonies 4, 5, 6, 9, 10 which I have bought separately from the boxed edition and which show another way to illustrate the composer's despair or desperation.

............................................

Some dialogue from the comments section that may offer further help:

I thought that you might like to know that before I buy a recording I now look through all the reviews to see if you have posted one. Your assessments and opinions are invaluable. Thank you. (US review)

I particularly like your format of review. They give the prospective purchaser an idea of the style of the playing and relevant comparisons. They are succinct. Keep up the good work! (UK review)

I'm sure there are many other serious collectors, besides myself, who wait for your synopsis and opinion before spending their hard-earned money on new releases...
Keep up the good work!
Thank you (UK review)

............................................
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Shostakovich: Symphonies by Rudolph Barshai, Sergei Aleksashkin & The Choral Academy Moscow WDR Sinfoniechor Köln
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