12 Holiday Songs…is part of a series. To read them in order: Day One: Sara Bareilles’ Love is Christmas
Though neither Barbra Streisand nor the song’s composer, the venerated Stephen Sondheim, need an endorsement from me, I think few people outside of Streisand’s fervent fan base or die-hard Sondheimites would be aware of this recording. For one thing, “I Remember” was part of Streisand’s second Christmas CD, Christmas Memories, which was released in 2001 (the liner notes make a point of indicating the singer finished recording on September 7, 2001) and like most holiday releases that year, was lost in the shadow of our collective PTSD. The album—which is quite lovely and appropriately somber—intuitively seemed to capture the feeling of melancholy that was so trenchant that particular Christmas and is, truth be told, a very real and regular part of the holiday experience for so many people. But the exquisite “I Remember” is well worth remembering.
The song was originally part of a score to Evening Primrose, a 1966 musical produced for TV that told the story of a poet who seeks escape in a department store after hours. “I Remember” is one of Sondheim’s most satisfying and deeply felt songs; emotionally immediate and full of the inventive wordplay that informs everything he writes:
And ice, like vinyl, on the streets
Cold as silver,
White as sheets,
Rain like strings and
For Christmas Memories, Sondheim wrote a new verse for “I Remember”—not originally a holiday song—with Christmas lyrics, and Streisand responds to the re-imagined piece by delivering one of her finest-ever performances. In “I Remember” she finds a lyric so full of rich imagery and so infused with emotion that her resulting performance is almost cinematic in its wistful expression of loss and longing; her languid phrasing shaping Sondheims’s words with a skill that is really quite astonishing. For me, “I Remember” is, perhaps, the mature Streisand’s finest acting moment and a persuasive reminder why she is, to use her own words “an actress who sings.”
I recommend listening to the song with closed eyes and an open heart. The beautiful arrangement, by the way, is by industry veteran and long-time Streisand collaborator Bill Ross.
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