The essential Barbra Streisand
- PLAYBACK by Jonathan Chua () - June 2, 2002 - 12:00am
It is not easy to encapsulate a musical career in just two CDs, especially if that career is as long as Barbra Streisand’s. To select songs from her 57 albums, released over the last four decades (from 1963 to 2001), and have the different phases of her recording history represented is a daunting task. The people behind such an undertaking are indeed the luckiest people in the world if they can pull it off. The makers of The Essential Barbra do. And the more exacting of Streisand followers may doubt the advertisement that it is "the greatest two-CD compilation of Barbra Streisand," it does manage to capture the way Barbra Streisand was and is.

Its apparent faults are two. First is its seemingly unbalanced representation of the singer’s career. While the compilation contains many of her signature songs, it leaves out a number of others that are as patently hers. The discard list includes, chronologically, Hello Dolly, Songbird, Till I Loved You, Some Good Things Never Last, and We’re Not Making Love Anymore. Most of the omissions involve her ineffectual attempts at pop music in the 1980s. Consider: Emotion and Left in the Dark, songs for which she made her first music videos, are excluded, but Children Will Listen, never quite identified with her, is not. The impression, then, is that Essential is more a post hoc sanitizing of the Streisand repertoire than a representative sampling.

Second, unlike most compilations of this import, the packaging is bare. There are no liner notes, no new photographs, and no archival material. (For these things, one must turn to her four-CD box set Just for the Record, released in 1991.) This is odd, considering that Essential is meant to celebrate Streisand’s 40th year with Columbia. Even if it were an ordinary compilation – and it isn’t – the irrepressible Streisand ego would ensure at least a little "personal note," as it has been doing since she assumed creative control of all her projects.

A number of facts make this collection even more dubious: (1) Essential is already the sixth Streisand compilation album, the 11th if one includes concert albums; (2) the last three compilations were released within a span of just 10 years, ironically the same years when she was least active. (3) She has released only one album of new material between her last concert album and this compilation. It is easy to suspect, therefore, that Essential is one of those inessential efforts meant to cash in on whatever popularity Streisand has left – the American equivalent of our pito-pito movies and proof that Streisand is the "Recycling Diva." The long-time fan no doubt remembers her (or Columbia) pulling the same trick with Memories in 1981. The album, prepared just three years after a greatest-hits package had been issued, contained only two new songs.

These faults, however, are more apparent than real. What the collection is intended to highlight is the music – and only the best music Streisand has produced. As such, The Essential Barbra is what it purports to be – essential. The absence of special material is meant to make listeners listen; the selectivity, to define the niche: show tunes and standards. The seemingly random choice of material, in short, derives from an understanding of what "Barbra Streisand" has come to signify. And what is that? In part, divadom and egomania, but mostly, a throwback to the days of grand gestures and stylized sentimentalism – a singer for the prim and prissy, the perfumed and powdered, the balding and the soon-to-be dead. It doesn’t rain on her parade, and don’t anybody head bang there, either.

The present compilation only affirms the impression. Streisand has never really sung for the young or the "hip." While the Beatles was "rocking" the music world, she was performing I Got Plenty of Nothin’ at a Vegas hotel. Whatever forays she made into contemporary music were purely strategic – to keep herself afloat as musical styles rose and sank. Even when she was wailing Enough Is Enough with Donna Summer, her tongue was in her cheek. ("That song with Donna Summer? What song? Oh, yeah, the disco thing. It was cute. My son, Jason, played it a lot. He never plays my stuff.") A comment from an old Rolling Stone seems to sum it up: "What a marvelous singer Streisand is when she’s not trying to pass herself off as a rock star."

Indeed, it is just as well we forget Barbra the rocker, for Streisand is essentially a dramatic vocalist, and should be remembered as such. Classical musician Glenn Gould once wrote that Barbra is "the greatest singing-actress since Maria Callas, and I hyphenate very carefully, in the sense of ‘singing-actress."’ And Ray Charles, after privately calling her a "bitch," quickly added that she "is the greatest living white female singer. She doesn’t just sing notes, she sings feelings." The superlatives cannot be ignored.

It shouldn’t be cause for lamentation, then, that three-fourths of the second disc are show tunes. Six songs come from her two Broadway albums; two more songs are from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals; and another two, from Yentl. The collection closes with the previously unreleased Someday My Prince Will Come (from Snow White) and You’ll Never Walk Alone (from Carousel), both done with the same showmanship as is found in her earlier works but set in a lower key. It is as though Streisand is coming home, after having styled herself as a pop/rock/disco star, to sing the music that her voice deserves. Never mind if the parade doesn’t draw as big a crowd anymore.

Her voice, after all, is the essence of Barbra Streisand. Its freshness and raw intensity in the 1960s, the tonal evenness and expressiveness it had acquired by the 1970s and 1980s, its burnished quality today – all that is preserved in the collection for listeners to enjoy and to study, to marvel at and to be moved by. Preserved, too, are her mannerisms (or excesses). In song after song, we hear her (1) singing five notes where only one is required, (2) sliding into notes instead of hitting them straight, and (3) sustaining impossibly long notes, just because she can. There is also her tendency to ignore rests between bars, to vibrate her consonants (specially the liquids and labials), and to end songs forte. Above all, however, is her flair for vocal italicization, which transfigures every songs she interprets into her song.

The Essential Barbra
is essential, finally, in another regard. It is a link to that treasury of music which should not be forgotten: the tunes of Arlen, Rodgers, Bernstein, Sondheim, Styne, Legrand, and Lloyd Webber; the words of Truman Capote, Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner, and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. How essential is Barbra in this age of indie, techno, and hip-hop? Very, if this musical tradition is to continue. Here are Memory and Somewhere most felicitously incarnated, where singer and song are indivisible, and matter and manner are inspired and inspiring.

The collection, then, is as ideal as collections can get – an abstract for those who have savored Streisand’s music over the last 40 years and an introduction for those who have yet to experience it. For an MTV generation that knows only parodies of Barbra Streisand, The Essential Barbra is a guide not only to the singer’s prodigious achievements but also to music that stays evergreen, long after songs about "stupid love" have ceased to shock or to amuse.

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