The pleasure of duets
- PLAYBACK by Jonathan Chua () - January 5, 2003 - 12:00am
The pleasure of the duet springs from that tension which arises from the interplay of two voices. In the duet are the seeds of the drama.

Drama is what we get in Duets, Barbra Streisand’s 58th album, which, along with The Essential Barbra released earlier this year, marks her 40th year in the business. The album is a compilation of 17 previously released duets, including the historic "Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again" medley with Judy Garland, and two new recordings: "I Won’t Be the One to Let Go" (with Barry Manilow) and "All I Know of Love" (with Josh Groban).

Although Streisand left the stage early in her career, she betrays her Broadway roots in duet after duet. Each song is a five-minute play; the verses are dialogue; and Streisand renders each one with the expressiveness of a stage actress.

To cite one example: In "Tell Him," Streisand assumes the persona off the older woman advising an ingénue in love (Celine Dion). She sings the first line of her verse softly, establishing her persona’s empathy with Dion’s.. Her voice is warm and soothing, but it gradually crescendos in the next lines ("But what you must understand/ you can’t let the chance/to love him pass you by"), by which device Streisand suggests the authority off her persona: this is a woman of experience, a woman with certainties. To underscore the idea further, Streisand keeps the last note (on "by") steady, instead of breaking it into three shorter notes (the petégula), as she typically would do.

The note segues to the refrain, which contains the first active exchange between the personae – and the worst lyrics in popular music. The last line ("love will be the gift you give yourself") saves it, largely because of the way it is delivered. When Streisand sings it, the "eureka" in her voice is evident (conveyed specifically via rubato: a rest between "gift" and "you" and a delay before "love"). It is the same triumph we hear in the voice of a teacher whose student has finally made a breakthrough – a Prof. Higgins whose Liza Doolittle has managed to pronounce her h’s ("By George, she’s got it!").

In a drama without visuals that is a duet, the message is in the voice: its modulation, coloration, and articulation. Streisand is an expert in the art, and so manages to enliven songs that are not especially remarkable in themselves. The aforementioned "Tell Him" is one. "Till I Loved You" (with ex-boyfriend Don Johnson) is another. Even "I’ve Got a Crush on You," a song that has been done to death, sounds fresh.

The above reminds one off how classical pianist Glenn Gould once described Barbra Streisand: "the greatest singing-actress since Maria Callas, and I hyphenate very carefully, in the sense of ‘singing-actress’ … It would never occur to her to employ the ‘I’ll meet you precisely 51 percent of the way piquancy of, say, Helen Reddy, much less the ‘I won’t bother to speak up ‘cos you’re already spellbound, aren’t you’ routine of Peggy Lee." The comparison to Callas is not exaggerated. It may even be added that there is the same metallic quality in Streisand’s upper register (more pronounced in recent years, e.g., "I Have a Love/One Hand, One Heart") as there is in Callas’; and that both singers are known to have mercurial temperaments. Each an overpowering presence, they have the capacity to dominate stage, screen, or speaker by sheer vocal force.

Part of the test of a duet performer, however, is his or her ability to soar with and not above a partner. At this Streisand often succeeds, withholding and unleashing her voice as the occasion calls. Whenever Bryan Adams lets a note expire in "I Finally Found Someone," she revives it and often connects it with a note in the next verse – vocal cushioning.

Especially remarkable in this regard is her duet with Frank Sinatra: "I’ve Got a Crush on You," first included in Sinatra’s own duets collection in 1993. Sinatra, 80 at the time of the recording, recites rather than sings. Streisand fills in the gaps, shaping the base for Sinatra’s raspy superstructure. Moreover, despite the fact that her vocals were merely dubbed over Sinatra’s at a studio, the recording sounds as though they were singing face to face. At one point, Streisand addresses him directly, a girlish titter in her voice: "Oh, you make me blush, Francis." (This improvisation inspired Sinatra to make a last-minute alteration "’Cause I’ve got a crush, my Barbra, on you.")

If, indeed, the duet is a matter of chemistry, it isn’t surprising, then, that the best duet in the compilation is that of Streisand singing with herself. A Barbra Streisand, after all, deserves a Barbra Streisand. In the medley of Burt Bacharach’s "One Less Bell" and "A House Is Not a Home, the emotion flows out so relentlessly, without apologies, that one is simply swept away.

Ultimately, what this retrospective brings across, even better than does The Essential Barbra, is not only Streisand’s astonishing vocal prowess but also her enviable longevity. The compilation shows how she can hold her own with someone half her age (Celine Dion) and someone twice as experienced (Judy Garland); how she can accommodate both the amateur (Kris Kristofferson) and the especially trained (Josh Groban); and how she can adjust to different styles: country (with Vince Gill), pop (with Barry Gibb), disco (with Donna Summer), or soul (with Ray Charles). It also proves her sheer tenacity. The earliest duet was done in 1963, the latest, in 2002. how many of her duet partners have vanished? How much longer will the others stay?

While the two new tracks, it must be admitted, are not the best songs that we’ve heard in a while, they nonetheless showcase Streisand’s singing capacities even at 61. They are immense still. Her duet with Groban, which deserves a grander orchestration, shows that the final act in the long Streisand musicall psychodrama is yet to come. Already she is set to record a duet with Linda Eder, whom many critics consider Broadway’s leading actress today. Before the curtain drops, we can expect more drama for this diva, than who a finer, more musical actress there is hardly any.

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