In the 19th century, some classical composers forgot (if they had ever known) the principle that "small is beautiful." For his "Eroica" Symphony (1803), Beethoven wrote a first movement longer than a typical whole symphony of Haydn or Mozart. Elaborating on his example, Mahler and Bruckner composed 90-minute symphonies, Richard Strauss created his enormous tone poems for gigantic orchestras, and Richard Wagner ground out his "Ring" cycle, which can be performed in about 16 hours if everybody hustles.
Much of this effort is admirable and authentically enjoyable. But for pure, spontaneous delight, many record buyers prefer music that runs less than five minutes -- 10 at the outside. Music meeting these simple specs is arriving on compact discs like a tidal wave, and today's column represents a frantic effort to catch up with the best of it.
Arthur Fiedler, the conductor who first convinced me that small is beautiful long ago in Boston, is still doing it in records from the '50s and '60s remastered on compact disc. Every performance he ever conducted proclaimed that any music you play, even small, frivolous pieces, deserves your best efforts, and that principle makes his reissues enduring exemplars of light classical programming and performance. "Fiedler on the Roof" (RCA 3201-2-RG) contains excerpts from Broadway musicals. "Fiedler's Favorite Marches" (RCA60700-2-RG) lives up to its title, except that I wish his great arrangement of "76 Trombones" had been included. Some of Fiedler's best repertoire is played with a polish like Fiedler's in the Royal Philharmonic's recording of six overtures by Franz von Suppe (Euroisc 69037-2-RG) with Gustav Kuhn conducting.
A similar level of seriousness and technical perfection can be heard in Janos Starker's performance of 20 "Romantic Cello Favorites" (Delos DE 3065) composed by David Popper (1843-1913). Cellists consider Popper the greatest master of their instrument before Casals, but his work is practically unknown to the general public -- that's unfortunate, because it is fine music with a light, sometimes sentimental flavor and a technical perfection comparable to Fritz Kreisler's little violin pieces. Starker's magnificent interpretation should win Popper the attention he deserves. One piece not included in Starker's collection, Popper's Hungarian Rhapsody, leads off Ofra Harnoy's collection of short cello pieces, "Salut d'Amour" (RCA 60697-2-RC). Harnoy's lush, wayward style is quite different from Starker's chaste precision, but she plays with rich tone in a program (largely of transcriptions) that ranges from Saint-Saens's "The Swan" to Gershwin's "Summertime" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee."
Some of the most striking music composed by that eccentric genius Charles Ives packs abundant material into less than five minutes, and a lot of it is recorded in "The Orchestral Music of Charles Ives" (Koch 3-7025-2) by the Orchestra New England under James Sinclair. The disc includes first recordings of a short, vivid piece called "Yale-Princeton Football Game," four ragtime dances that use hymn tunes and the Postlude in F composed when Ives was 15, as well as pungent performances of his "Country Band" March, "Calcium Light Night" and more familiar works in the new Charles Ives Society critical edition. The excellent performances and sound make one hope that this is the first of a series. Chopin One composer who never forgot that small is beautiful was Frederic Chopin, whose waltzes, nocturnes, polonaises, ballades and mazurkas frequently show a kind of perfection that can be attained only in small forms. Several recent Chopin CDs deserve attention. Artur Rubinstein's early recordings of eight Chopin pieces (including the four scherzos), dating from the late 1920s and early '30s (Pearl GEMM CD 9464), embody the spirit of romanticism in a special way, favoring momentum, spirit and emotional communication above minute attention to notes on the printed page. Short works by Brahms, Debussy, Albeniz and Granados fill out a collection unlike any other recorded. Rubinstein's later style can be heard in some of Chopin's larger works (the Concerto No. 2, the Grand Fantasy on Polish Airs and the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise) on RCA 60404-2-RG.
I did not like John Khouri's "Piano Music of Frederic Chopin" (Entr'acte ESCD 6506) the first time I heard it, not so much because of his technique, which is good, or his interpretations, which tend to brisk tempos but do not distort musical values. The problem was the piano, an 1833 Broadwood tuned to A=435, which sounds a bit flat and thin-toned to today's ears, with an "una corda" pedal for a harpsichord-like soft sound. In Mozart, yes; but in Chopin it sounded problematic. A taste for these elements grows, however, with repeated exposure, and I recommend the disc to those who like the sound of old pianos and those who need to expand their musical awareness.
The summit conference of Chopin performance is the International Chopin Piano Competition, which has been held in Warsaw approximately every five years (wars and politics permitting) since 1927 and is now the world's oldest continuing music competition. On the whole, it has probably been more effective than Moscow's much better-known Tchaikovsky Competition in picking out pianists notable for musical sensitivity as well as speed, power and accuracy. This success is impressively documented in the four-volume "Chopin Competition Special Edition" (Muza PNCD 001 to 004), which features live recordings of the winners in competitions from 1932 through 1975. The pianists are Lev Oborin, Alexandre Uninsky, Yakov Zak and Bella Davidovich (Vol. 1); Halina Czerny-Stefanska and Adam Harasiewicz (Vol. 2); Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich (Vol. 3) and Garrick Ohlsson and Krystian Zimerman (Vol. 4). The discs are as notable for their musical value as for their documentation of great careers at their origins.
A pianist-composer who should interest any fan of Chopin's small masterpieces is John Field (1782-1837), who began writing nocturnes in a Chopin-like style before Chopin. A CD by John O'Conor (Telarc CD-80199) presents 15 of them (a nearly complete set) in performances of exquisite sensitivity. Field's Mozartean Rondo in A-flat for piano and strings is less romantic in flavor but well worth hearing in a performance by pianist Eckart Sellheim and the Collegium Aureum on a Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (DHM) disc (77005-2-RG) that also features excellent performances of concertos by Luigi Boccherini and Johann Schobert. Miscellaneous One of the finest collections of musical miniatures is the "Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach," a selection of serious and trivial works that was put together for (and mostly by) Johann Sebastian Bach's second wife. It contains works by a few others but mostly her husband's and includes vocal music (chorales, cantata segments, a moralistic song about pipe-smoking and the beautiful love song "Bist du bei mir") as well as keyboard pieces. A good selection from this book is given on DHM 77150-2-RG by harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt with soprano Elly Ameling, baritone Hans-Martin Linde and the Tolzer Boy Choir.
A wonderfully diverse and well-played selection of more than 50 very short pieces is performed by La Camerata on "The Medieval and Renaissance Harp" (Vox Turnabout PVT 7146), a collection whose otherwise self-explanatory title does not mention that other instruments are also involved.
The finest and most famous collection of violin miniatures is undoubtedly the 24 unaccompanied caprices, Op. 1, of Niccolo Paganini, the last of which, in A minor, has been the subject of sets of variations by many composers, including Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawski and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Violinist Alexander Markov gives a hair-raising account of the caprices on Erato 2292-45502-2.