CD Review: Classical Barbra (Remastered Edition)

Barbra Streisand; Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Claus Ogerman (conductor & piano)

21 March 2013 4 stars

February 2013 saw the release of the newly remastered edition of Classical Barbra, a major cross-over album by pop star Barbra Streisand, including two previously unreleased tracks. Originally released in 1976, the album's production began three years earlier with Claus Ogerman at the helm in the roles of producer, arranger, pianist, conductor, and for one song, composer. Classical Barbra reached no. 46 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, spent four months in the Top 10 on the Classical chart, and
is certified gold in the U.S. The album also received a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Performance - Vocal Soloist. Accompanied either by Ogerman at the piano or by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ogerman, Streisand navigates the chosen repertoire comprising art songs and arias in a range of European languages and the provincial dialect Occitan.

This new release, remastered by multiple Grammy-winning Steven Epstein, ties in well with Streisand's fifty-year anniversary with Columbia in 2012. Streisand fans have recently been treated to an album of previously unreleased material Release Me, the national Back to Brooklyn tour, the release of her new film The Guilt Trip, a live performance for the Academy Awards ceremony, and the re-release of classic Streisand films on bluray, including Hello, Dolly! and A Star is Born. There are several more projects planned for over the next year, including amongst others a new duets album and the multi-DVD set Barbra Streisand: My Life in Words and Music.

So where does this definitive edition of Streisand's classical crossover offering sit amongst her current work and releases? The allure of two previously unreleased tracks from the 1973 recording sessions certainly suits the current nostalgic vein in Streisand's work. As well as being a motivation for Release Me and her programme choices for her Back to Brooklyn performances, this has been evident in Streisand's live performances even since 1993, as she has increasingly revisited past material alongside her more recent repertoire. Releasing Classical Barbra in its new form also ties in with the blu-ray releases of her iconic films. Despite these clear links to Streisand's current activity, I find myself asking why this album in particular? Surely there are other Streisand albums from her early-to-mid career which were more popular on their release, or are more identifiable with Streisand, that could have featured bonus unreleased tracks in a remastered edition.

Amongst her process of looking back and selectively highlighting the successes and experiments of her career of over five decades, Streisand has emphasised an aspect of her work by offering us this album once again, now in an expanded form. More than any other of her albums, Classical Barbra demonstrates Streisand's capacity to take creative risks and succeed commercially and artistically. Though this is true of several of Streisand's recordings, Classical Barbra offers high art's validation of her courage, fearlessness, and incomparable vocal ability.

It could be said that the nature of 'crossover' is something which characterises several points in Streisand's recording career, which has moved from easy listening, to musical theatre, to contemporary pop and rock, to film, and so on. However, whilst The Broadway Album and its follow up Back to Broadway were a statement of sorts about returning home musically, Classical Barbra is the musical equivalent of Streisand's unrealised dreams of tackling the dramatic roles of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekov. Perhaps on some level, the rerelease of this album is a comment on Streisand's career being more than some of its parts, that much of her talent has indeed gone unrealised and unrecognised despite her varied and prolific output. I find myself agreeing with Glenn Gould in his review for High Fidelity from over a quarter of a century ago that Streisand ought to have recorded another classical album, for her performance on Classical Barbra, especially now that we are able to access two extra songs, indicates that there is even more to her vocal and dramatic abilities than had been realised up to this point in 1973 or indeed after.

To an extent it's a shame that Streisand didn't build on the success of Classical Barbra by record another classical album, as this album can be found lacking in several areas. Luckily the inclusion of 'An Sylvia' and 'Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen' on this new release provide a contrast to the mostly moderate-paced and less energised performances on the rest of the album. In these Schubert lieder Streisand's vocal performances are rich in quality and assured in tone. In the latter song especially, Streisand succeeds in capturing the complex mood of the poetry and her vocal line complements the piano accompaniment just as a boat gliding over the waves underneath. This performance is more successful than her other lied offerings by Schumann and Wolf, which despite being handled with vocal delicacy, do not quite show off Streisand's interpretative ability. Her performances in 'Vershwiegene liebe' and 'Mondnacht' seem somewhat detached, though she does colour and savour several moments. Overall, though, and this is true also of her French songs, Streisand doesn't quite succeed in conveying the imagery and emotions of the poetry here, especially as her performances do not broach an intensity of expression above mf. This is especially disappointing in the case of 'Beau Soir' and 'Après un Rêve' considering Streisand's affinity with French song demonstrated in her television special, Color Me Barbra, and her first composition 'Ma Premiere Chanson' for her French album, Je m'apelle Barbra.

There are highlights to the album though, amongst which are Joseph Canteloube's 'Brezairola', where her subtlety of expression is hauntingly intimate, and Carl Orff's 'In Trutina' which indicates the expressive possibilities of the higher part of Streisand's range used very gently and with minimum vibrato. Also, the arrangement of Fauré's 'Pavane' allows Streisand to express an element of playfulness and spontaneity in her vocal line in so understated a way that it feels as if we're listening to a private moment of improvisation. I find Ogerman's 'I Loved You' is the most successful song on Classical Barbra. Perhaps it is because the song was composed specifically for Streisand that she seems the most at ease in this performance and conveys the melancholy of the poem with a very personal sensitivity.

Overall this album features interesting and sensitive performances by a star performer renowned for her voice's expressive ability. Though at times Streisand may seem obscured by the repertoire or the arrangements, she does leave a mark on each piece and makes them her own at least to some extent. As a reflection on the past and a comment on her career, what Streisand album better conjures the artistry, enthusiasm, and bravery which she has invested in most if not all her creative projects?

By Debra Finch