The title said it all: Classical Barbra. Here was a singer who needed no surname, diving headfirst into a new repertoire, that of art songs and arias. Streisand’s 1976 “crossover” album, created in collaboration with arranger, pianist and conductor Claus Ogerman, has recently arrived on CD in a newly-remastered, expanded edition from Sony’s Masterworks label (88691 92255 2, 2013). And if Classical Barbra might not have been every fan’s first choice for a deluxe Streisand reissue, producer David Foil has made a compelling case for this often-overlooked, and surprisingly accessible, classic.
Though recorded in 1973, Classical Barbra was first issued in 1976 between the Lazy Afternoon LP and the soundtrack album to A Star is Born. It couldn’t have been more different from those pop-rock projects, however, as its twelve tracks were drawn from the European classical repertoire of composers including Claude Debussy, Carl Orff, George Handel, and Robert Schumann. Producer Claus Ogerman had previously worked with Streisand on the concert stage as well as in the studio, and brought to the project his great versatility. Ogerman had sensitively arranged Bach and Chopin for Bill Evans and bossa nova for Frank Sinatra, and the German-born producer proved himself a perfect match for Streisand. He was among the numerous strong producers who each brought a distinct sensibility to her recordings of this era, including Richard Perry (Stoney End) and Rupert Holmes (Lazy Afternoon), and also composed the album’s closing track and sole original composition, “I Loved You.” (Its lyrics were adapted from Alexander Pushkin’s poetry.) Streisand was at her most virtuosic on this collection, singing not only in English, but in French, Occitan, German, Italian and Latin. Ogerman’s symphonic backdrop lushly supported (but never overpowered) Streisand’s vocals on the album’s original ten tracks, expanded to twelve for this reissue.
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Needless to say, the material is quite different, and by its nature, more austere, than on any other of Streisand’s albums. But her clarion voice and dramatic interpretive skills served her well on these varied songs. An ethereal, dreamlike state prevails on Classical Barbra, thanks to the singer’s deeply-felt but never over-sung readings of a number of nocturnally-themed songs. She’s both sensitive and straightforward on Debussy’s “Beau Soir” (“Beautiful Evening”). Its resigned lyrics, sung in French, reflect on the inevitability of one’s mortality, but Streisand imbues the language with the same grace and restraint she brings to Canteloube’s “Brezairola,” in which the singer implores a child to the far less permanent state of sleep. The loneliness of evening also figures in Schumann’s transfixing “Mondnacht (Moon Night)” and Hugo Wolf’s “Verschwiegene Liebe (Silent Love),” both of which offer the purity of just voice and piano, with Ogerman playing the pieces exactly as composed while Streisand sings effortlessly.
Streisand is perhaps at her most impressive on Gabriel Fauré’s haunting “Pavane.” The wordless, evocative track, on which her vocalese glides over the orchestra, was composed in 1887. But it could be a film theme even today with its abundance of atmosphere. Fauré is also represented with “Après un rêve (After a Dream)” in which the singer, in French, wishes to recall those images that enchanted her in dreams. There’s tremendous grace in the performance of Handel’s “Dank Sei Dir, Herr (Thanks Be to Thee, O Lord),” as well as in the collection’s only English language track, Ogerman’s “I Loved You.” Streisand conveys the emotion of Pushkin’s words in the relatively short song, again accompanied only by piano. As it also eschews the faintest whiff of pop music, “I Loved You” sits comfortably alongside the album’s other compositions. Whether lilting or piercing, all of these songs required, and received, the utmost control from the vocalist.
For many, the raison d’etre of the new reissue will be the two previously unreleased songs, both composed by Franz Schubert and accompanied only by Ogerman on piano. These outtakes don’t disappoint. It’s easy to see why “An Sylvia, D.891” was left off the album, though it has nothing to do with the quality of Streisand’s captivating performance. Streisand caresses Shakespeare’s rapturous words (written for The Two Gentlemen of Verona: “Who is Silvia? What is she, that all our swains commend her?”) as translated into German by Eduard von Bauernfeld and set to music by Franz Schubert. But Schubert’s melody is more upbeat, lighthearted and bright than the other tracks on the original album. “Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen, D.774” is likewise quite driving in its melody, transcribed for solo piano by Franz Liszt. Perhaps these songs were felt to interrupt the delicate mood and flow of the LP sequence. (“Auf Dem Wasser” was also sung by Streisand on her 1973 television special Barbra Streisand…And Other Musical Instruments.)
Masterworks’ reissue is well-designed, and includes new liner notes by David Foil as well as the original, track-by-track annotations by Homer Dennison. Foil puts the album in perspective while Dennison takes a scholarly approach in describing the background and form of each composition. Full lyrics and English translations are also present in the 18-page booklet. Oddly, a remastering credit is missing, though early information indicated that Steven Epstein had remastered the album. His work here is crisp and clear, befitting the full, expansive sound of the symphonic orchestrations. Francesco Scavullo’s striking photographs of Streisand have, of course, been retained, such as the cover image of the vocalist looking as lithe and fierce as a tigress. That photo brought a modern flourish that made it impossible to overlook the album.
Classical Barbra feels as timeless today as it likely did upon its release, when it was greeted by accolades including a Grammy Award nomination for Best Classical Performance – Vocal Soloist. (Beverly Sills bested Streisand on awards night.) As she hasn’t returned to the classical songbook, the album remains a tantalizing one-off, or what-if, in a storied career. After all, it’s likely that only Streisand could have approached Handel with the same passion and emotion as she often did Hamlisch. Utilizing all of her considerable vocal gifts, she brought forth the fragile beauty of these classical songs while treating them reverently, respectfully and by and large, traditionally. With the 2012 compilation Release Me and this new reissue, more previously unreleased music by the singer has emerged in the past months than in many years. Should more titles from Streisand’s vast catalogue be treated with the same respect and approach as Classical Barbra, fans and collectors alike can rest assured that they are in good hands.
You can order the new Classical Barbra here!