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Barbra Streisand’s latest triumph is a tribute to songwriting couple, Alan and Marilyn Bergman

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Barbra Streisand, What Matters Most: Barbra Streisand Sings the Lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman (Columbia)★ ★ ★ 1/2

BY HOWARD COHEN, hcohen@MiamiHerald.com

Barbra Streisand writes in the liner notes of her new CD about her friends and longtime collaborators, celebrated pop music lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The married couple “have a remarkable gift for expressing affairs of the heart. To give you some idea as to how much I admire their lyrics, I’ve already recorded 51 of their songs … and with this new collection it will be 63!”

There are 10 new performances of the Bergmans’ songs on What Matters Most, but who’s counting?

If Streisand’s math is faulty, the same can’t be said of her instrument or for her taste in selecting material. What Matters Most continues the late-career artistic renaissance begun with Live in Concert 2006 (partly recorded at her BankAtlantic performance in Sunrise); the chart-topping Diana Krall-produced jazz album, Love Is the Answer in 2009; and last year’s Live at the Village Vanguard CD/DVD set.

As on those releases, Streisand’s voice, now at age 69, is deeper, with more richness and warmth. Though the years have taken some of her top range, her expressiveness remains peerless. It can be argued that Streisand is even superior to her younger self — on her earliest recordings, she could be shrill and overly dramatic.

That’s not a problem here. The highlight comes at the top with arguably the finest version of The Windmills of Your Mind to date. With music from Michel Legrand for 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair movie, the Bergmans’ Windmills has been recorded by Noel Harrison, Dusty Springfield, Sting and others. But Streisand’s inherent understanding of a lyric, down to the minute detail of an accented syllable, transcends them.

She begins this new version daringly a capella. A lone pluck of Gayle Levant’s harp accents and moves the melody forward as a lush orchestra politely joins the proceedings. One gets the impression the other musicians were so taken by Streisand’s bell-like singing they couldn’t bear to join in and distract from the beauty. The track brings to mind the tone and delivery of Streisand’s other memorable Legrand/Bergman full-length collaboration, the Yentl soundtrack and film in 1983.

Nice ’n Easy, she sings in her cover of a 1960 Frank Sinatra album title tune, and that describes the pace of an album on which eight of the 10 songs are ballads. But where this was a problem with previous disappointments like The Movie Album and A Love Like Ours a decade or so ago, What Matters Most thrives in this unhurried, romantic environment. The arrangements are full-bodied, artful and engaged.Repeat listens reveal nuances built into bossa novas like So Many Stars (a ‘60s hit for Sergio Mendes) and the luxuriant Solitary Moon. That Face, made famous by Fred Astaire, sparks off its swinging big band tempo. But where Streisand distances herself from her competition, and slavish upstarts like Glee’s Lea Michele, is in her originality and smarts.

Rather than a note-for-note reproduction of Sinatra’s Nice ’n Easy, Streisand refreshes his tune by taking it at a leisurely tempo at first, in contrast to his brisk reading. She steadily builds the tempo until it distinguishes itself next to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ Capitol Records-era blueprint. What Matters Most is the equivalent of those great Sinatra concept albums of the mid 1950s and ’60s — albums that, like fine wine and furniture, appreciate with time. No one else is doing exactly that any more.

What Matters Most also adds 10 previously released Streisand-Bergman performances on a second CD in the Deluxe version fans assuredly own, like The Way We Were and You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. But the grouping is of value for the way it introduces overlooked material like the gorgeous After the Rain, from 1979’s underrated Wet album.

Maybe Streisand’s math is correct and she’s holding on to two more new performances to bring her Bergmans tally to 63. If so, she’s welcome to release them anytime.

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This review is great because Howard Cohen actually gives reasons why certain songs on this disc are different from the original artists' recording of the same song. Many people who read reviews look for a reason to buy the product; why should I buy this one? What's different or better about it? In this review, Mr. Cohen does just that. Thanks!

Success to me is having ten honeydew melons and eating only the top half of each slice http://bit.ly/mZiuO7

Thank you, Jeff. Very kind of you to say.

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