VOCAL HEROES / Happy days are here again: In the second of our series on great voices, Edward Seckerson traces the extraordinary flights of Barbra Streisand

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The voice was fresh, intense - different. She sang the Milton Ager / Jack Yellen standard 'Happy Days Are Here Again'. That, too, was different - downbeat, slow-burn, ironic, blue with the spirit of the Depression. Effectively a new song.

The sense of unease grew with each phrase, as if slowly but surely the singer were trying to convince herself of the words: 'Your cares and troubles are gone, there'll be no more from now on . . .' There was something defiant, perhaps even a note of desperation, about the way she hung on to the last syllable of that line; and the big finish - that seemed to cast aside pretence altogether: 'so let's sing a song of cheer again . . .' was almost contemptuous, 'happy DAYS . . . ARE . . . HERE . . . AGAIN', each word punching us towards the bitter pay-off: a hard-belted E-natural that was plainly right off the chart of her natural chest-voice. But still she clung on, until her breath - and with it her hopes - ran out in a kind of exasperated scream.

And so concluded the centrepiece of Barbra Streisand's first album. 1963 was the year, she was 20, and this was more than a first album, it was a statement of artistic intent - a brave one. The entire Streisand vocabulary was in place, her small, concentrated voice displaying its flexibility and range in an amazingly diverse selection of songs, from the seminal to the absurd: from classic renditions of 'Soon It's Gonna Rain' and 'A Sleepin' Bee' to a 'loony-toons' pastiche of 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf'.

The character of the voice somehow defied categorisation: it belonged to no one single idiom exclusively - not cabaret, vaudeville, Broadway, jazz, soul, pop - but rather to all of them.

The sound to this day remains unique - a little older and wiser, filled-out, lived-in, but fundamentally unchanged. The intensity is in the narrowness of the timbre: it's a reedy, plangent, oboe-like sound which seems to resonate well forward in the sinuses.

The quality of ecstasy (there's really no other word) at the top of the voice comes from an intoxicating mix of chest and head tones. When she opens up on a number like 'He Touched Me', you can get high on the intensity of the vibrato alone. There's a lot of head-tone in the Streisand sound: you don't really hear the natural break between her middle and upper registers - that's the point at which the chest and head 'mix' usually comes into play. Actually it's around D / E-flat below high C, which is uncommonly high and why that reckless E-natural at the close of 'Happy Days' sounds so electrifying.

The Streisand sound was born in a vaudeville trunk, nurtured on the club circuit, and came of age on Broadway. When Fanny Brice became her alter ego and she first sang 'I'm The Greatest Star' in Funny Girl, it was a demonstration of everything she'd learnt and would probably ever learn about selling a number: she was a one-woman show, a gallery of caricatures and funny voices, she was a sassy, brassy one- woman band with a wah-wah trumpet built into the voice.

She could always call up that sound and style when a number like 'Second- hand Rose' beckoned. But the vocal transformation from ugly duckling to swan could be sudden and startling: from the burlesque bugle to a breathy saxophone or even flute when she wanted to play it really cool.

Inside the torch-singing, show-belting voice, there was always a jazz singer struggling to be born. Streisand can swing and bend phrases with the best of them. 'Cry Me A River' (track one on her first album) has the air of a smoky backroom bar, she toys seductively with the rhythm, she plays up the 1940s melodrama. It's one hell of a display. But it's also very precisely imagined and executed; it's not the work of a thoroughbred jazz singer, rather a slick impersonation.

Maybe there's a correlation here with Streisand's fear and / or reluctance to perform live; fear of the unknown, fear of losing control? Streisand standards have tended to remain set in their ways.

Streisand has always insisted upon describing herself as an actress who sang. I don't buy that. She's a great singer, a useful actress. She'll claim a song, she'll take it over, inhabit it, live it. Sometimes the 'drama' sounds a little applied. There are the familiar Streisand mannerisms: the plaintive 'white' sound (no vibrato), the little-girl-lost inflections which owe something to Marilyn, the tearful catches and breaks in the voice, the emotive breathiness. But the concentration of emotion into sound is always extraordinary. Once heard, never forgotten, her thrilling high D at the close of Michel Legrand's 'A Piece of Sky' (from Yentl). Now that's much, much more than a piece of Hollywood grandstanding: 'watch me fly', says the lyric, and fly she does, for an eternal, breath-defying 19 seconds.

Every Streisand performance tells a story. In the great Harold Arlen / Truman Capote number 'A Sleepin' Bee', she takes us from innocence to sexual awakening and back. She's impatient for the climax - euphoric, fit to burst. But then the air clears and with the last line she communicates a different kind of rapture. Working close to the microphone, she lets us in on the secret: 'A sleepin' bee told me I would walk with my feet off the ground, when my one true love' - and here she soars to a floated high F in the head-voice and then literally lets the note drop to a sigh of contentment. The last three words, 'I have found', provide the after-glow as she curls up with a cosy glissando on the two syllables Arlen makes of 'found'.

It's something of a paradox, I suppose, that the recording studio should apparently have liberated Streisand. She's such a theatrical performer that you would naturally expect the reverse to be true. But then, remember her fears: it's the safety-net factor; there's always another take, she can be selective as well as creative, she can hone and refine, choose her favourite inflections, variations, elaborations.

The first track on her last album - the ultra-chic, state-of-the-art Broadway Album - says it all. This is at once a brilliant hi-tech adaptation of the Sondheim song 'Putting It Together' from Sunday in the Park and an expose of Streisand, the perfectionist, at work. She and her small army of arrangers, instrumentalists and technicians have a smart new angle on virtually all these show standards. But still you wonder how the fabulous embellishments of 'Somewhere' will have sounded at the moment of performance.

In a spectacular, heavily synthesised arrangement suggesting 'Phil Spector in space', Streisand soars, swoops and pirouettes around that Bernstein tune with a soul-singer's relish. Would she fly like that with only an audience to catch her? You bet.

When she took that number 'live' into her Malibu garden for the 'One Voice' concert - her first in 20 years - she left behind a lot of the technological paraphernalia. But there was something else, something no recording (not even a recording of the actual event) could ever really capture: a sense of immediacy, of phrases being created in the singing of them: the final flourish - seven notes on the one word 'Somewhere' (you won't hear that in the studio recording) - sounds for all the world like an invention of the moment, a risk taken in that moment and for that moment only.

Likewise the airborne second chorus of 'Over the Rainbow' - which Streisand had never sung before; and she'd completely re-thought 'Happy Days Are Here Again', reasserting its spirit of optimism with one of her uplifting octave leaps at the words 'altogether, shout it now'. Gone was the agonising finish of 22 years earlier. And with it, alas, another all too rare glimpse of Streisand in action without her safety-net.

The recordings remain sensational snapshots of three decades. But they are just snapshots. You can trace the career right back to Streisand, aged 13, in a recent four-disc set Just for the record . . . Tucked in is a private recording made at the Winter Garden Theatre, New York, on 26 December 1965 of the very last performance of Funny Girl. At the final curtain call she sings the Fanny Brice classic 'My Man' - albeit transformed from its listless tango rhythm into something demonstratively jazzy, soul-baring.

Two years later she reproduced that number, virtually phrase for phrase, note for note, on the soundtrack of the William Wyler movie. But the raw emotionalism, the abandon of that night in New York, was gone. Compare the two recordings: for Hollywood, she fights back tears throughout the halting opening measures; but the tears are dry. Back in New York she is fighting for every note: the big-band-breaking climax goes for broke, the voice cracks unforgettably in the final ascent: 'But whatever my man is, I am his for ever more.' Not even Hollywood could fake that.

(Photograph omitted)