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A Bach Blog - Behind the Scenes at 'A Bach Christmas'

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The production and presentation team at Radio 3 share their thoughts and experiences of planning and creating 'A Bach Christmas'.

    Notes from R3 presenter Catherine Bott - 23 December 2005

    An overwhelming response to our "Brixton Angels" feature - more than 70 emails in an hour, from several countries and Brixton itself, from Christians, atheists, a prison chaplain - all of them wanting to send the same affectionate and admiring message to our special guest singers. There were offers of practical help, requests for a repeat of the feature, praise for the Governor's compassion and severe criticism of Government policy. My task over Christmas is to make a digest of quotes from these mails so that the Angels can see how much they were appreciated.

    And many people confessed that they simply hadn't expected such individuality and intelligence from prisoners, that they hadn't really considered them as people before. Spending a day in Brixton Prison, all of us locked into the chapel at all times just as a matter of policy, was an eye-opener for me too. It occurred to me after a while, talking to people and hearing about their ambitions, that there are really only two differences between "them" and "us" - one is that, however badly we may have behaved during the day to our colleagues and friends, at least we get to go home of an evening. The other is that we musicians seek - and get - validation on a daily basis. Even if we get criticised by critics or conductors, we get attention for our efforts. And the vast majority of men doing time have hardly ever had much of that.

    Watching them discovering the awesome power and beauty of Bach (and once again, you can't make assumptions here, there was someone who'd often been to the Wigmore Hall , someone else who used to work for ENO and demanded my opinion of the new Madam Butterfly production and a talented pianist who hovered round hoping for a chance to play the harpsichord for the first time, and was rewarded for his sight-reading of a prelude with a huge ovation) was tremendously exciting. I tried to find the right words and references to talk about the ups and downs in Bach's life and their enthusiastic faces told me when I got it right.

    Sitting in the studio listening to the feature yesterday, I was very stern with myself - I'd already heard it once, after all, so I could be a cool professional. Er - no, I couldn't. The arrival of that lovely email from a man who said he'd been moved to tears had the same effect on me. I was remembering those lit-up faces, and just hearing the generosity and good humour (remember the guy who'd like to listen to Bach with a glass of brandy and a fat cigar?) and wisdom in their reactions was too much. Shape up woman, don't be sentimental....

    But the Bach Christmas seems to have made us all vulnerable this week, and maybe it's done us a power of good. I can only echo Petroc's enthusiasm and say: where else but Radio 3 could this have happened?

    Off now to do my last afternoon, includng the Easter cantata "The heavens laugh, the earth rejoices". Hope so.

    Read the Diary of Sound Engineer
    View the Gallery of Photos from Brixton Prison

    Notes from R3 presenter Sarah Walker - 23 December 2005

    My Bach Christmas didn't begin too promisingly. I caught a bad cold and as my first broadcast approached, became hoarser and hoarser. I went to Radio 3's Christmas party a few days before, and Roger Wright (Radio 3's Controller) told me to stop talking. I disobeyed him! The next morning I had no voice at all, and my husband put me into solitary confinement to rest and avoid talking to our daughter, who is 3 and likes me to do impressions of ducklings and other creatures. I was frantic with worry, as Roger's warning loomed large in my memory. Fortunately the solitary treatment worked, and by the first evening I had my voice back - just! Phew!

    After that, I've had nothing but enjoyment from taking part and listening. I love the feeling of tuning in to a special event, something that's drawing together the whole of Radio 3 in a celebration of both Bach and Christmas. It's drawing together a wide community of listeners, too - I've had communications from friends in all walks of musical life - the new music scene as well as the classical folk - everyone is interested and engaged. I even bumped into one of my old lecturers from Royal Holloway, Dr Jim Dack, while out Christmas shopping in Windsor, and he was raving about Bach Christmas, saying that it was pure therapy, and it was great to be reminded just how marvellous this music is. Oh, and he had a message for Roger Wright (an ex-Hollowegian, I recall): have you conducted the Schumann Piano Concerto recently????

    Notes from R3 presenter Jonathan Swain - 22 December 2005

    Where music's concerned, we don't all come in through the front door do we? I'd imagine for many, a first entry into Bach's world would have been through a side door - like Stokowski's arrangement for orchestra, of the organ Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Or maybe my own side door, Jacques Loussier. That was in my teens, and I'm not in the least ashamed of it. But, half way through this A Bach Christmas, I now realise it's not strictly true. I've been listening to Radio 3 as much as possible this week at home, more often than I've been in Broadcasting House as part of the team presenting it, and - yes, a bit slow on the uptake here I know - but every time I turn the Radio on, and a Bach chorale or whatever greets my ears, there is this instant connection with something that took root in my very distant past. And this, I imagine, is why A Bach Christmas is bringing folk together in a way that the normally diverse Radio 3 schedule couldn't possibly do. In a phrase - 'the communal experience'. Of course, it's part of being born into and brought up in a 'Christian' Society - and whether or not one chooses to stay with those beliefs and traditions in later life, isn't relevant. They are around you from Day One. And it needs saying that you don't have to be a Christian, or be born into a large Christian club, to respond to Bach's music. But is it more than that?

    Villa Lobos once claimed that Bach was "an intermediary between all peoples ..... and a universal folkloric source". Not sure what today's World Music experts would make of that! But it rings bells with me. And there certainly seems to be a stronger 'communal' element to Bach's music than just about anyone else's. In fact it's hard to think of a less 'ivory tower' composer than Bach.. . Hindemith perhaps - who was in many ways Bach's 20 th century successor. Both made music that was useful - Bach's particular genius was also making it sound inspired ....as mostly, in my opinion, did Hindemith ... a Radio 3 'Hindemith Hamper' next Christmas anyone?

    Notes from R3 presenter Petroc Trelawny - 22 December 2005

    What a week … I think I am spending more time in the studio than anyone other than Louise ‘up all night’ Fryer  -  and will have clocked up 27 hours by the end of it all.   The Radio Three studio isn’t the most inviting of rooms;  it’s always either too hot or too cold but at least its been livened up by the addition of some tinsel this Christmas … not sure who put it up but my money is on Lucie Skeaping.     It’s very much in her colour scheme.

    But back to those 27 hours -  I have to say they are flying by.    I had a marvellous time when we staged the Beethoven Experience back in June -  and thoroughly enjoyed working my way through a symphony cycle.    This time it’s even more satisfying -  the variety of Bach,  the breadth of Bach, the range of instruments and interpretations, why Glenn Gould sounds so different to Angela Hewitt who sounds so different to Cedric Tiberghien;  the cantatas as interpreted fifty years ago and now,  as read by musicians in Tokyo/Amsterdam/London;    why something written for harpsichord can work on moog synsthesizer or played by jazz ensemble.  It seems  incredible that one man could have been responsible for so much variety.   Tonight I introduce three of the cello suites,  tomorrow the St Matthew Passion.      And he wrote them both.  Staggering.

    When we launched last Friday,  I was alone in the studio with  my producer and our studio manager.  The clock ticked down,   I heard Sean introducing me,  and having been calm and collected suddenly felt rather nervous …  this was the start of a 214 hour broadcast after all  -  then the Christmas Oratorio started,   and we were on our way.   Only then did I realise the Controller of Radio Three, and various other top brass were hiding around the corner.        What has been particularly edifying with this programme has been the response.  Emails have been coming in thick and fast;   we only have to mention something and people tap in to their keyboards.    I don’t think I’ve ever seen the message boards busier.   I’m trying to read everything -  negative as well as positive.   What’s perhaps most interesting is the number of people who don’t consider themselves to be regular serious music lovers who are finding themselves hooked.   I’m getting texts from friends who I would never have put down as R3 listeners,  who are suddenly finding hard to switch off the radio at night,  or get out of the  car in the morning.   It also  brings home how lucky I am to work for an organisation that has a)  the willingness and b)  the resources to do something like this.  I was in Washington DC last week,   ‘capital of the western world’,     where there is only one classical station,  which plays several hundred (hundred, not thousand) hit movements over and over again.   That’s been reflected in messages and postings from around the globe over the past week.   I hope this doesn’t into Pseuds corner territory,    but as a citizen and license fee payer, rather than employee,  I'm  proud we’ve got the BBC -   we must never allow it to be destroyed by any future government.

    One more thought -   Bach’s music is challenging,    attention grabbing -  yet much as I hate the sentiment of this phrase,   it’s deeply calming as well -   I’m cooking turkey for 12 on Sunday  (while trying to listen to the end of the Christmas Oratorio),  and then there are presents  -  but I found myself strolling through Oxford Street this afternoon,   the pavements impassable,  angry shoppers everywhere   -  as I serenely cut a swathe through them,  the sound of a pair of harpsichords in my ears.  These days have been a very special experience.

    Notes from R3 presenter Sandy Burnett - 20 December 05
    So, high time I wrote my long-delayed post mortem on my Bach cantata concert on December the 11 th ...

    I should have realised that my new mobile phone was trying to tell me something. When I tapped in Bach the predictive text suggested the word accident instead! In the end it was the cold that was our biggest enemy on the day. I got a call from the church to say that the heating system had packed up. The three-hour rehearsal there was very fresh indeed, but a combination of a couple of borrowed heaters and thermal underwear made the concert rather more bearable...

    I was lucky to secure four fine vocal soloists again this month, all of them "regulars," and therefore aware of what's required in rehearsal - for singers and instrumentalists to get to grips with an [often very complicated] aria in the space of around 20 minutes. Our bass soloist Bruce Saunders in particular was on magnificent form - not only is he a wonderfully musical bass, he's also Canon Pastor of Southwark Cathedral, and it was great to have his combination of musical and theological expertise on hand.

    Preparing in advance is crucial, but so is reacting to circumstances on the day. I didn't realise that the opening chorus of BWV 121 would sound quite so imposing on site - something to do with the large choir which we had on hand this month, and the team of trombonists which we had at our disposal for the first time ever. Both of those factors brought a spacious sound to Bach's deliberately "old-fashioned" setting, and the end result was more like Gabrieli and Palestrina rather than anything from the C18th. It's a style of music that the string players hardly ever come across, and some of them were still scratching their heads after the concert! But the rich polyphony filled the reverberant space at St Michael's in the most atmospheric way.

    With 112 cantatas under our belt, our ongoing project at St Michael's goes into hibernation now till May. And once again I have my Radio 3 hat on in the meantime; my shift on A Bach Christmas is between 7 and 10 weekday mornings. Scanning the schedules, I notice that Cantata 121 is coming up at lunchtime on Christmas Day, in the Harnouncourt recording. I bet he didn't have to conduct it in long johns....

    Notes from R3 presenter Catherine Bott - 17 December 2005

    First highlight of a 'Bach Christmas': turning on my radio on Saturday morning for a zippy Brandenburg 2 from the Alessandrini gang - outer movements way too fast for me and a "surprise" ending that indicates only a rather puerile desire to shock, but hey, we could have fun discussing tempi all day, the music is still indestructible.

    Second highlight: Andrew McGregor and Jonathan Freeman-Atwood discussing the history of cantata recordings, with some terrific surprises from the 50s.
    Big highlight of the whole festival: our visit to Brixton Prison to share some Bach with a couple of dozen residents, for some of whom he's an old friend and for others a total stranger. What's better than discovering Brandenburg 2 for yourself? Being with people who are hearing the piece for the first time. A cracking performance from guest trumpeter Simon Munday and the Royal Academy of Music Baroque Orchestra drew a response which was heartwarming in its directness and perspicacity. The men were coming to the end of a composition and performance project with Sara Lee's charismatic team from 'Music In Prisons', and they paid us the huge compliment of taking Bach very seriously. The good cheer of the Concerto went down very well, but Laurence Cummings' playing of two contrasting Preludes and Fugues from the 48 was thought-provoking too, and we rounded off with the early version of the cantata "Ein Feste Burg" - which I slightly retranslated for the day as "God is our castle of safety" - featuring a semi-chorus new to the baroque world, the 'Brixton Angels', joining in the first chorale. 'Wunderbar', as someone in the audience said. A half-hour compilation of the day will be in my Thursday afternoon stint at about 3pm .

    Notes from the Editor of 'A Bach Christmas' - 16 December 2005

    So the months of planning, headaches (and hangovers!) are nearly over!  Tonight (in fact in 7 hours time) the 214 hours of continuous broadcasting that is A Bach Christmas will actually hit the airwaves.  Last minute things - an email address called bach @bbc.co.uk, chasing "lost" CDs, fielding questions about style, content, durations (and requests for blogs) - will continue for the rest of the day.  I feel a bit like someone at the controls of a very large oil-tanker steaming inexorably across the ocean: there's not much at this stage I can realistically do to alter course.  A better analogy would be a rocket exploring the outer reaches of the universe; a space we know is there, but don't actually know much about.  This will be a real voyage of discovery for us all.

    I remember when Bach was first mooted, asking my colleagues in this Department to name as many Bach cantatas as they could.  There are over 200 of them and the best anyone did was about a couple of dozen.  This wasn't designed to demonstrate people's ignorance, but it proved that even among musicians, here is a vast body of great music with which we are unfamiliar.  What's been a real pleasure - and priviledge - has been to realise that without exception everything JSB wrote is of the very highest quality;  you may think "oh no, not another cantata", but put on the CD and another treasure-trove of wonders is revealed. 

    There's a real buzz here and in the press and already on the message boards about Bach - let's hope that we can fulfil or even exceed expectations.  It's a real credit to everyone involved - marketing, press and publicity, interactive, production colleagues around the country - that this great enterprise is on the starting-blocks.

    Notes from a Pronunciation Linguist - 14 December 2005

    A meeting at Broadcasting House in late November with a Radio 3 editor and producers leads to a request for a special list of Bach titles for the Bach Christmas season - just the ones with German names. I'm a German speaker, amateur choral singer and Bach fan, so I take the job on with pleasure. We're a very small team of three linguists, and we advise the entire BBC on pronunciations in every language, so bless my two colleagues Lena and Martha, who cover much of our other work while I concentrate on the list.

    I settle down for a proper look at the titles in Grove and realise that, besides the couple of hundred cantatas I'd anticipated, there are chorales, organ works, sacred and secular songs, arias … more than seven hundred all told. Some titles appear more than once of course (tied for first place, with six uses each, are "Allein Gott in der Hoeh' sei Ehr'", "Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend" and "Vater unser im Himmelreich", fact fans) but still… Things are sped up a bit by finding the titles already in BWV order in a handy spreadsheet somewhere online, but it's riddled with typos and whoever put it together seemed to regard umlauts as optional extras, so it's back to Grove to verify the spellings before moving on to the pronunciations.

    It's a fair task just to type them out, never mind checking them against the trusty Duden Aussprachewoerterbuch that doesn't leave my desktop for the next week. I use my iPod to provide suitable accompaniment - the Johannes-Passion and some lute works -  and get the list into shape. It goes up on our internal website, is strategically emailed to various Radio 3 people, and my work is done.

    From a Radio Sound Engineer - 14 December 2005

    At Brixton prison - This is the first time I've ever had to run cables over razor wire. The first one goes well, the second one gets stuck and after that we are very, very careful.
    We help to carry the harpsichord upstairs, supervised by a very nervous tuner, and then the somewhat apprehensive members of the Academy Baroque ensemble arrive.
    Go to the engineer's full diary

    From 'Morning on 3' presenter Sandy Burnett - 9 December 2005

    As the count down continues to A Bach Christmas here on Radio 3 I'm currently absorbed in my own Escape to Bach in the meantime! Since 1997 I've been masterminding a complete cycle of Bach's sacred cantatas based at St Michael and All Angels church in Bedford Park, Chiswick, London W4. The Sunday evening series takes place on a monthly basis and all musicians give their services for nothing. The concerts themselves are a mixture of committed music making, spiritual chill-out zone, and a means of raising money for a deserving local cause, currently the Upper Room charity in Shepherd's Bush.

    The next concert in the series is looming large - at 7.30pm on Sunday December 11 th in fact, with two cantatas on the programme: BWV 121 Christum wir sollen loben schon and BWV 149 Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg. My role in the project is just as much coordinator as conductor. And experience has taught me that booking the right solo singers is crucial to making the cantatas succeed. Not necessarily singers who speak German - although that really helps - but those who can get to the spiritual heart of the music, and be quick on the uptake. This last is a vital consideration since there's just one rehearsal on the afternoon of the concert!

    My old UK passport had a space to describe any distinguishing features - and I often think that something similar could come in very handy to describe the cantatas, since they're much more individual than you might expect. Each one has something distinctive about it. For example BWV 121 is based on a chorale written almost 200 years before Bach's time by Martin Luther himself; it's the basis for the old-fashioned, even severe music of the outer movements; whereas the alto and bass arias in between are "modern", confident and virtuosic. My challenge as a conductor will be to bridge the gap between these two styles and make the cantata hang together. As for cantata BWV 149, three of its movements have prominent parts for bassoon - all of which goes to show that every dog has his day! In this case, our loyal bassoonist Richard Sheldon QC; having been a stalwart of our continuo section for years, he finally has his chance to shine.

    So the stage is set for what ought to be a good concert on Sunday - all that remains is for me to learn the music, ring round the soloists and principal players, cope with last-minute panics at Sunday's rehearsal and concert, attempt to explain some of the theology behind each cantata to the audience, host the post-concert party (it is the last of the year, after all), and remember to set the alarm for Morning on 3 first thing on Monday. And after I've recovered from all that, I'll report back with an update ... 

    From executive producer Graham Dixon from Leipzig - 8 December 2005

    It was great to walk into the church almost 30 years ago and hear an organist playing the Bach Toccata in F.
    Go to Graham's full Leipzig diary

    From a producer who needs to take more water with it ... - 8 December 2005

    In a rare moment off duty from Bach I was watching 'Rome' on the telly and noted Julius Caesar ticking off a lieutenant for forgetting to salute (fist to heart, extend arm, flat hand, palm downwards ...). It occurred to me that we Bach toilers should maybe make a salute whenever the great genius's name is mentioned. The consensus in the office is that it would be the opening couple of bars of the (albeit disputed) Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565. To perform the salute, raise both arms and with fingers in unison, go 'diddle-um (short pause), diddle-iddle-um-dum' (You can devise your own fingering). Sorted.

    Notes from producer Coriander Stuttard - 7 December 2005

    I'm concentrating on compiling the 'works' area of the Bach website.  Having put together a complete list of Bach's works, grouped by genre, my enormous task now is to link as many works as possible to their scheduled broadcast times.  So I'm getting used to differentiating between sung chorales and chorale preludes but I don't think I'll ever get to know all those BWV numbers!

    I'm finding that Bach is creeping into other areas of my life too.  As part of my daily violin practice,  I'm working my way through all the solo sonatas and partitas and as I play them, I've been prompted to think a lot more about Bach's spirituality in his writing.

    Notes from presenter Rob Cowan - 7 December 2005

    Funny how, if you were to ask me to name my top-ten favourite composers, I'd have trouble finalising the list. But not my 'Number one', Bach ­ a notion confirmed in the planning of two all-Bach sequences for Sunday mornings. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of JSB is his indestructibility. He can be fattened, slimmed, swung, marched, plugged in, overlaid with other tunes ­ shaken like a cloth puppet, or whatever but he survives it all. The classic debates about period performance and the 'Romanticised' Bach of the so-called old masters still inspire animated responses and my intention in these programmes is to offer some telling examples of personalised Bach interpretation. Compare, for example, Albert Schweitzer's broad and rugged organ playing with the top-gear Brandenburgs of conductor Reinhard Goebel; or the searing intensity of the violinist Heifetz with the ruminative, rhapsodising manner of the cellist Casals. And there are the orchestrations , Leopold Stokowski making a kaleidoscopic showpiece of 'the' Toccata and Fugue whereas Dimitri Mitropoulos's version of the G minor Fantasia and Fugue more approximates a movement from one of the great Bruckner symphonies. These and other approaches help focus aspects of Bach's musical language, and I hope that menus I've come up with prompt further explorations. Even as I write this, I want to go back to them!

    Notes from network presenter - Graeme Kay - 6 December 2005

    I have two weeks left before I record my contribution to A Bach Christmas. I've been asked by CD Review to do a round-up of the available boxed set versions of Bach's Complete Organ Works - I'm currently carrying around a briefcase with 128 CDs in it (minus their cases of course) - more than enough to set any Bach organ buff's anorak on fire. This supremely daunting task is made slightly less overwhelming because it's in the context of A Bach Christmas - it won't be a 'Building a Library'-type feature because, to fulfil the 'Bach - every note' criterion, I'll be playing pieces in their entirety.  I've received a steer from one of the Bach Uber-producers as to which pieces they need me to play (examples from the Orgel-Buchlein and the Clavierubung Part III), and as most of the organ repertoire throughout A Bach Christmas will be performed by Peter Hurford and Christopher Herrick, who mainly use modern instruments, I've been asked to illustrate mainly with historic organs: that means lots of Silbermann and - my favourite - Arp Schnitger. But I will finish the feature with top recommendations from all of the organists surveyed during the programme and throughout the week. Want to know who singes my parka? Tune in to Radio 3 at 10am on Christmas Eve!

    Notes from 'Through the Night' presenter - Louise Fryer - 6 December 2005

    63 hours of Bach's music - that's what the Editor and I have been wrestling with over the past few weeks - in order to arrive at 9 nighttime programmes for the midnight - 7.00am stretch of R3's Bach Christmas. Though wrestling isn't really the right word for wallowing in Bach's wonderful soundworld. And while the editor's been tracking down particular performances, I've been trawling through books, articles and websites to find out exactly when and why Bach wrote each cantata, chorale and prelude. Running through the links, I feel at times like an evangelist preacher - quoting verses from gospel readings and the moral lessons Bach and his poets drew from them. At others I'm more like a Bingo caller - giving up to 5 BWV numbers at a time, I wonder who'll be the first listener to yell "house".

    Notes from a Producer - 30 November 05

    'Great to begin to get feedback from organists who are keen to join us in the Toccata and Fugue Celebration. There is an exciting sense of Bach fires being lit. A great image of Bach resounding through the land on December 18th!'

    Notes from an R3 Producer - 1 Nov 05

    'Tuesday 8.30am. Bump into Alan Rusbridger looking lost. I take him up to the studio where he reveals that the perfect preparation for his day editing the Guardian is playing a prelude and fugue first thing in the morning. He describes this as a 'sorbet'.
    Quick turn around and Rabbi, Julia Neuberger is in the studio talking about the similarities between Bach and Sudoku, then writer and broadcaster Armando Ianucci tells me that listening to Bach makes hims think about space... In the evening, author Ian McEwan comes in and talks about Angela Hewitt's recording of the 'Goldberg Variations', featuring in his novel 'Saturday'. When I tell him I'm a flautist (now retired) he gets very animated about how Bach inspired him to learn the flute so that he could play the 'B minor Suite'.
    What a day. Still in need of women to talk about Bach... so the push is on to persuade people to talk about their Bach passions... So far I have about 30 people to record and edit plus another 30 musicians.

    Notes from a R3 Online Producer - 25 October 2005

    'Everyone is also working hard to try to make sense of presenting the Schmieder catalogue on the web. It's not just a matter of listing everything, but designing a navigation based on user journeys: asking why will you come to the site, and what information you will be looking for (answer: finding specific works and their slots in the schedule!). And asking ourselves, how can we add value to your journey in ways which you might not expect, and which could enhance your understanding of Bach and his music 

    Notes from a R3 Producer in Leipzig - On How to Spot a Real Bach Anorak

    'It's a rainy day in Leipzig and Donald Macleod, John Eliot Gardiner and producer are recording the first of their 9 programmes about Bach's cantatas. But much more exciting than the Bach Archive, Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche are the contents of the Bach Shop. Donald's attention is drawn immediately to the rather fetching waterproof jackets hanging in the corner, predominantly black with a fetching red stripe. But what about the intricate insignia on the pockets - does that really say 'Bach'? For 35 Euros it's an obvious bargain and seconds later the deal is clinched. Yes, presenter and producer can now instantly be recognised by their matching impermeable homages to the world's greatest composer'.

    Notes from a Controller -  20 October 2005

    'It is great too to eavesdrop on arguments about which recordings we should use. I remember the heated debates about the Beethoven interpretations when we did the Beethoven Experience - clearly the temperature is still running high over versions - which Gould Goldberg for instance or period performance versus modern instruments. I wish our listeners could hear the passion of the debate and know the care that is being taken over such choices. I hope they join in the debate when the broadcasts take place.'

      A Bach Blog

      Bach Blog

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