’Classical Barbra’ Revisited
For hundreds of thousands of Streisand fans, many of whom were Friends of Dorothy, "Classical Barbra" was the album that first introduced them to the songs of Faure, Debussy, Schumann and Wolf. Recorded in 1973, and destined for Gold upon its release in 1976, "Classical Barbra" was a mind-blower, and not just for the classically uninitiated.
Even as many welcomed Streisand's one-off departure, others found it an image-shatterer. Affected the most, perhaps, were those still staggering from the impact of their diva's 1971 breakaway album "Stoney End." It was bad enough that Barbra had abandoned the Broadway of "People" for the pop tunes of Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell and Carole King. But to now go classical, and trade "Cry Me a River" for Handel's "Lascia ch'io pianga," was tantamount to traitor-hood.
Some adored the album. Our bisexual brother Leonard Bernstein, who had successfully bridged the Broadway/classical divide, showered the album with praise. "Barbra Streisand's natural ability to make music takes her over to the classical field with extraordinary ease," he proclaimed. "It's clear that she loves these songs. In her sensitive, straightforward, and enormously appealing performance, she has given us a very special musical experience."
Truth be told, "Classical Barbra" is a mixed bag. On one level, it is an absolute joy to hear this great singer approach art songs and arias in German, Italian, French, Occitan, Latin, and English with such devotion and care. Enunciation is clear, breathing exceptional, and the basic warmth of the voice irresistible. The first two tracks, Debussy's "Beau Soir" and Canteloube's beloved lullaby "Brezairola" from "Songs of the Auvergne," show Streisand to best advantage. In both, she sings with such intimacy that it feels as though she's making love to the microphone, and to us in turn. Her tone is so warm, so sexy, so sweet and smooth. So what if she and her arranger change some of the timing in "Beau Soir" to make it sound more pop-like? It's still a wonderful sing.
Yet, as the album continues with one slow, lyrical track after the other, there's a sense that Streisand is resisting her natural impulse to let go. Often, as she rises in her range, the sound is unmistakably that of Barbra the belter. But the belting is held in check, very much in check, so in check that for those who already know what can be done with these songs, the renditions frequently become mono-dimensional and monotonous. You keep wanting Barbra to do more, both vocally and emotionally, but she goes only so far.
A good share of responsibility for the album's shortcomings lies with its producer and arranger, Claus Ogerman. Ogerman not only conducts the Columbia Symphony Orchestra on eight of the 12 tracks, but also provides piano accompaniment for the remaining four. Has a professional musician ever provided a more singsong, plodding, and deadly accompaniment to Schumann's exquisite "Mondnacht," or a more un-liquid clatter under Schubert's "Auf dem Wasser zu singen?"
To the extent that Ogerman encouraged Streisand to sing as he played and conducted, without nuance, rubato, and other hallmarks of the artistry she brought to her Broadway repertoire, and to replace dreaminess for feeling, he deserves castigation. Is it any wonder that two of his piano-accompanied songs, Schubert's delightful "An Sylvia" and the aforementioned "Auf dem Wasser zu singen," are here published for the first time?
Then there is the engineering. You can hear the sound of the limiter kicking in an attempt to legislate lethargy every time Barbra got going. It's also humorous to hear the differences in the electronically altered acoustic for Handel's "Dank sei Dir, Herr" and Ogerman's pseudo-classical song "I Loved You."
But when all is said and done, how can you not love the high sweetness that Streisand brings to Orff's "In trutina" (Carmina Burana), or the beauty of her Vocalise in Faure's oft-heard Pavane? "Classical Barbra" may not represent Streisand at her best, but so much of it is so lovely and daring that it's hard not to embrace her effort.