Short listening notes: Janácek, Hindemith, Khaled, Steely Dan, Macy Gray, Handel

In lieu, for the moment at least, of longer reviews, I'll note a few things I've been listening to with great enjoyment recently:

Janácek's piano music.  Both the Sonata and the series of short pieces called "On an Overgrown Path" are major masterpieces.  Lyrical, evocative, often passionate.  Tonal, but with Janácek's sometimes unusual harmonic colors, which however are completely natural and expressive, not self-consciously displayed.  Both Rudolf Firkusný on Deutsch Grammophon and Alain Planès on Harmonia Mundi are excellent.  I give the slight edge to Planès for a softer-edged, more atmospheric piano sound, but you can't go wrong with either.  This music really should not be missed.

Paul Hindemith, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd  and Requiem, "Für die, die wir lieben" ("For those we love").   Annelies Burmeister, mezzo-soprano, Günther Leib, baritone, Soloists and chorus of the Berliner Rundfunks, and Berliner Rundfunks Symphony Orchestra.  Deep feeling here; this is not what I'd think of as "gebrauchmusik" ("use-music", a term probably from an earlier phase of Hindemith's career).  These pieces are post-World War II.  I need to listen to this CD again, but recall my first listen, about a month back, as a wonderful discovery.

Khaled, Liberté.  Khaled, for those who don't know, has long been perhaps the greatest star of the North African (especially Algerian) popular music called Rai.  In the Arabic-speaking world, he's a superstar.  When I first put this on, I was not paying much attention, and thought it not as good as the earlier, essential N'Issi N'Issi and Sahra.  Played it again last night, and revised my opinion:  it's superb.  His voice is as good as ever, his command of swirling North African melisma as secure as ever, and the material, a substantial amount of which he writes himself, is mostly excellent.  Overall, though it features electric bass and some synths, the sound is "rootsier" than the other two albums I mentioned, with lots of instrumental interludes featuring traditional North African instruments and a string section recorded in Cairo.  Reminiscent of some of his stuff from even earlier than N'Issi and Sahra, when he was more of a rising regional star than an international superstar.

Steely Dan, Katy Lied.  I wasn't really familiar with this album, which apparently predates the essential classic Aja, but it's solid.  Great to discover another 10 mostly excellent songs from the Dan, in the same vein as Aja, if perhaps a bit more varied and not as consistently great.  If you like jazzy chords with your pop-rock, lots of possibly tongue-in-cheek 70's-beatnik/hipster lyrical attitudinizing, and the occasional sax solo, the Dan is for you.  But you already know that from Aja, and the hits (Rikki, Do it Again, etc...) that still make classic-rock radio.  Excellent listening.

I Try: The Macy Gray Collection This is some kind of Greatest Hits CD I picked up cheaply.  Solid neo-soul and R&B singing from Ms. Gray.  Her voice is nice, a bit lighter than those of the gutsiest, earthiest female soul singers (e.g. Aretha), but with a slightly smoky texture, too.  That's a description, not a criticism.  Mostly very good material, some written by Gray herself.  Highly recommended.

G. F. Handel, The Messiah (oratorio).  Elly Ameling, soprano; Anna Reynolds, alto; Philip Langridge, tenor; Gwynne Howell, bass.  Academy and Chorus of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Neville Marriner, conductor.  (London 444 824-2).  Excellent soloists, very clear recording, with relatively light instrumental forces and a reasonably light-footed, baroque feel, but probably not original instruments or finicky attention to baroque stylistics.  With some of the sweetness (compared to many original-instruments treatments) that I tend to associate with Marriner/St.Martin's productions.  Beautiful.  The music is of course profound and essential listening.  Sir Colin Davis, leading the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Heather Harper, soprano, Helen Watts, contralto, John Wakefield, tenor, and John Shirley-Quirk, bass, is also excellent, with a fairly similar overall feel (perhaps a somewhat less lush and sweet, more severe feel overall).  Unfortunately it seems to be marred by some kind of constant scratchy background noise, not extremely loud, but annoying once heard.  I have no idea what this is; if it's the result of a poor digital transfer in the early days of CD, then a remaster from analogue tape is in order; otherwise, let's hope there's a better master tape around somewhere because this performance is good enough that it deserves a noise-free reissue if possible.