There are a few, very few, singers who really know how to get the core of the meaning of a song and communicate it to you as if they were imparting a new discovery. Barbara Cook is one of these chosen few. She has always had (and to an astonishing degree she has maintained, at age 70) one of the finest and loveliest voices on Broadway and in popular music. She's also communicated depths of feeling even from her earliest recordings. As she has grown older her interpretative powers have deepened to the point where there is no other singer today who can communicate the truth of a song the way she does. Every song on this CD is choice. There is nothing one ever wants to skip, and plenty that one wants to linger over and come back to again and again. Cook's relaxed but confident version of "Everybody says don't" (more about the lady in the song and less about the singer than the excellent but egocentric Streisand version), her ambling "Eagle and me" and her touching "I wonder what became of me" are all gems. She especially excels on complicated Sondheim songs that are often reduced by less gifted singers to something unsubstantial: "Happiness", "Not a day goes by", "Loving you". She gives her own subtle, wry touch to "You could drive a person crazy". She does a surprising medley of three turn of the century songs, "Hard hearted Hanna", "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee", and "San Francisco". They are all marvelous, different as can be. "San Francisco" is a particular revelation: she sings it slowly and brings out all the longing in the words. As the melody shimmers, you can almost see the Golden Gate bridge.
Throughout the concert , Cook is beautifully supported by Wally Harper and John Beall. She and Harper are a treasure of a team, and the concert must be considered a triumph of their partnership, for Harper's accompaniment and musical vision have been an essential part of the magic of a Barbara Cook concert for her entire popular music career. Her vocal guest, Malcolm Gets, is for the most part a welcome addition: his "Giants in the Sky" and "Another hundred people/So many people" are warm and well-delivered, and his duet with Cook in "Move on" is touching. "Something's coming", with its slightly awkward spoken break and "Lets face the music and dance", which has some off-pitch moments, are not quite as successful.
The concert ending is utterly remarkable and illustrates not only Cook's versatility and willingness (still) to take emotional and musical risks, but also her complete command of the music she sings. First she teases the audience with the introduction to "Glitter and be gay", which she lets them know she is *not* going to sing. But then she follows by singing her trademark song, "Vanilla ice cream", fearlessly soaring to and sustaining the high B flat at the climax of the song, and sounding throughout like the dazzled, lovestruck shopgirl she played forty years earlier. She follows this with a version of "Send in the clowns" that could only be sung by a woman with her depth of experience - not a false note or emotion in the entire song, though the woman who is singing it is a world away from the "She loves me" shopgirl. For all the great versions that preceded it, you think to yourself, "I never heard it - all of it - until now." The combination of emotional nakedness and musical intelligence leaves you floored. As if the transition from "Vanilla ice cream" to "Send in the clowns" weren't challenge enough, Cook ends the main concert with a song completely identified (for good reason) with one of the greatest popular singers ever, Judy Garland. The song is written for a young girl who is falling in love for the first time and is so excited she can barely contain herself. Barbara Cook, at 70, sings "The Trolley Song" with a brio and effervescence a whole chorus of twenty year olds couldn't match. You feel the same giddiness and excitement you felt when you first heard the classic Garland version, and it's magic all over again. For encores, Cook gives us two beautiful and very mellow Sondheim songs, "Not while I'm around" (with Malcolm Gets) and a divine "Anyone can whistle", that allow us to exhale after the excitement of "The Trolley Song" and appreciate her again as the consummate interpreter she is. The disc is sprinkled throughout with her verbal wit and warmth, which are an integral part of the concert. For those who were fortunate enough to attend, this must have been the concert of a lifetime. The rest of us can be grateful to DRG for recording the concert, packaging it so beautifully and including every song and most of the between-song talking. We can also be grateful to Barbara Cook and Wally Harper for their generosity with their musical gifts and hope that they will keep making music for another 25 years.