But not just pristine: rich and compelling. Though Luker and Wilfert have distinctive voices when singing separately, they can sound nearly identical when singing together. (They have the same voice teacher.) Listening to playbacks, even they could not always figure out who was who. In duets like “You Are My Best Friend” (the charming opener) and “Isn’t It Better?” (a Kander and Ebb torch song here turned into an anthem of sisterly support) something sublime happens as the two voices, blending so closely, seem to multiply even as they merge.
That effect is at its height in the album’s finale, an unexpected pairing of the Patty Griffin song “Be Careful” with “Dear Theodosia,” a number sung by Aaron Burr to his infant daughter in “Hamilton.” As performed by Luker and Wilfert, “Theodosia” feels like a promise from today’s women to their spiritual daughters to leave them a safer world. “Be Careful,” whose lyric provides “All the Girls” with its title, is wrenchingly ambivalent, celebrating women’s strength but also their fragility — and ending, in this arrangement, on a daringly unresolved harmony.
Which feels only right. Strong as the album is — five poetry settings by Thalken are especially lovely — it inevitably comes wrapped in a shroud of loss. I don’t mean just the loss of Luker herself. Her kind of voice (and Wilfert’s) is gradually being squeezed out of musical theater, as classically trained sopranos give way to the kind described so saucily in “Not Funny,” which Kelli O’Hara will sing at Tuesday’s concert. Most new works are written for belters.
The greater loss is of course personal. Many of us, mourning a loved one, are grateful for any scrap of their voice that might be preserved in a phone message or video. That’s not Burstein’s situation. He has lots of Luker’s albums to listen to. The problem is that though they are comforting they are also devastating — especially, on “All the Girls,” that final medley, with its aching Griffin lyric: “Be careful how you bend me/Be careful how you send me/Be careful how you end me.”
In any case, the albums are what Luker gave us, not him. More than her public voice, what Burstein misses most after 20 years of marriage is her private voice: the one he heard in car rides spent harmonizing together to ’70s hits on the radio.
“Now it’s just me and the radio,” he says.
By comparison, the rest of us are lucky. Listening to “All the Girls,” in some ways Luker’s funniest and wisest album, we get to keep her singing next to us forever.
Rebecca Luker and Sally Wilfert
“All the Girls”
Becca: A Night of Stories and Song in Memory of Rebecca Luker
May 4 at 7:30 p.m.