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Music review: Barbra Streisand's unparallelled vocal gifts were in awesome evidence at the O2

O2 Arena, London

Barbra Streisand's shtick on the concert stage these days involves affecting a faintly flustered comic bemusement that she's been a legend for over fifty years.

She kibbitzes with the audience as if to say, “Monument of the ages, moi? I'm just a Brooklyn kid who'd prefer to be back home in Malibu – without all this make-up and schmutter – rearranging my tchochkes”. But the unparallelled vocal gifts that have elevated Streisand to her legendary status were in awesome evidence throughout the concert she gave at the O2 Arena on Saturday.

It's a venue that makes Luton Airport feel like the Wigmore Hall. But Babs – in a spangly black-sequinned Donna Karan trouser-suit in the first half and backed by sumptuous sixty-piece band – imposed a wonderfully unforced intimacy on the proceedings, for which some of the faithful had forked out a top ticket-price of nearly £500.

Lately, the Voice has sounded a little scratchy and frayed, though the stout resolve and superb technique with which Streisand manages to hoist it over these difficulties has come to seem morally as well aesthetically impressive. And the great news is that she is currently singing better than she has done in a decade. From the “On A Clear Day” opener to the stirringly anthemic choral finale of  “Make Out Garden Grow” from Candide some three hours later, the liquid loveliness of her instrument, its inimitable combination of sweet molasses throb and black-coffee-like astringency, was back on goosebump-inducing form.

The highlights for me included a rapturously beautiful rendition of the Jim Webb classic “Didn't We” where she turns the phrase “that long hard climb” into a ravishing enactment of what it means and where characteristically ecstatic lift of the voice (that comes from there being almost no break between her chest and head registers) and the sense she imparts of producing transfigured speech are at their clearest.  She and trumpeter Chris Botti fashion a newly complex reverie out of you “Lost Inside of You” from A Star Is Born and she duets with her vocally talented son Jason Gould on a dreamy version of “How Deep Is The Ocean” that is a little masterpiece of controlled dynamics. 

She has ditched the manufactured boy band tenors (first Il Divo, then Il Volo) that used to be the grating price you had to pay for a Streisand tour.  Instead, it's now a family affair (her singer-sister Roslyn Kind gets a turn in the limelight.  And there's an amusing bit where she answers written questions from the audience (“Galashiels?  Is that right?” she asked with incredulous hesitancy, as if confronted by rare word in Serbo-Croat.)  A happy occasion, then, in which the greatest female popular singer of the twentieth century served renewed notice that it is business as usual in the twenty-first.

Streisand performs a second concert at the O2 Arena tonight then tours to Amsterdam, Cologne and Berlin