The best-selling classical record in the United States is not "Pavarotti's Greatest Hits" or an "1812 overture" with tactical nuclear weapons in the percussion section or even the latest classical composition spliced into a movie soundtract. It is, amazingly, a contemporary work: David Del Tredici's "Final Alice," a London digital recording of a performance by soprano Barbara Hendricks and the Chicago Symphony under Sir Georg Solti. Composed in the mid-'70s, it is one segment of a three-part cycle based on Alice in Wonderland" that has been occupying much of the composer's energy for more than a dozen years (another segment, "In Memory of a Summer Day," won the Pulitzer last year). It is also an encouraging bit of evidence that composers may be losing their fear of writing pretty music.

The first version of "Final Alice" ran 35 minutes and seemed "too long" to Solti, who conducted the premiere, so he sent it back to the composer to be shortened. Del Tredici made the suggested cuts but in reworking the material he somehow lengthened it to 59 minutes -- which seems to be perfectly all right. It may be that the long-playing side is becoming the basic time unit of classical music; 35 minutes is a bit long for one side, but 59 is just right for two.