Chopin's Minute Waltz is now a 'Sensual Classic', Ravel's Bolero a 'Classic Climax'. Helen Nowicka on classical music's new image
the couple press together in a passionate clinch, their eyes half- closed, oblivious to everything else. She, a bare-shoulded Latin beauty, has ripped her partner's shirt open and is drawing him closer. He, a muscular smoothie, leans forward, lips parted. They are a breath away from a kiss, their stance personifying the words 'passion' and 'sensual' behind them.

This is not the cover of some soft porn film, but an album of classical music. Such pictures are now commonly used to sell works by centuries- dead composers to an audience more used to buying pop and rock albums. Recent sex-themed releases include Classic Climaxes, billed as "over 70 minutes of the most potent, awesome and overwhelming moments in classical music," and Out Classics, which boasts "seductive classics by the world's greatest gay composers".

Such compilations have infuriated traditionalists within the classical scene, not least because they are bought in vast numbers. While a UK classical album is seen as successful if it shifts 10,000 copies, these steamy "greatest hits" collections sell five and ten times that number. In contrast to the middle-aged professional man who typifies the serious classical music listener, these compilations are aimed at and, it appears, bought by men and women aged between 25 and 45 who know little about the music.

Evidence of this potential mass market emerged in the late Eighties when Nigel Kennedy exploded into the conservative classical world. With his spiky hair, punk dress sense and love of Aston Villa, he was a memorable rock star-style personality and classical browsers loved him. Instead of being intimidated by the sheer volume of unfamiliar music or baffled by countless recordings of the same work they could now ask for "that Nigel Kennedy album". His Four Seasons sold two million copies worldwide and set classical record company executives thinking.

Soon afterwards Pavarotti's version of "Nessun Dorma" went to Number One after being used as the BBC's theme to the 1990 World Cup, while British sales of the Three Tenors album topped four million. Suddenly the pressure was on to find other ways of meeting this mainstream demand for classical music.

An obvious solution was to re-release well-known classical works, repackaged to appeal to ageing pop and rock fans looking for something new. Out went staid cover shots of pastoral landscapes, fine art or sober-looking middle-aged soloists. In came the writhing couples, bare male torsos and soft-focus shots of women in blissful post-coital repose.

These sex-themed compilations spawned other concepts - Classic Stressbusters, Top Gear Classics, even Gardening Classics. From a standing start five years ago such collections now account for about 40 per cent of UK classical sales. Some commentators believe their popularity has been encouraged by Classic FM which plays short snippets of listener-friendly music in contrast to Radio 3's unremittingly erudite approach. According to Simon Foster, director of RCA's classical division which has just released Out Classics, "Classic FM is a pop style station that plays classical music and this country needed that."

Aimed at the gay market, Out Classics comes with intellectual trappings. Its sleeve essay by an American music writer "outs" Chopin and Schubert and speculates whether their shared sexuality also gives them similar musical characteristics. But the selling pitch still rests on bare flesh - in this case, a black and white cover photo of a muscular male torso glistening with beads of passion-induced sweat.

Less cerebral is Classic Climaxes, whose 14 extracts are unashamedly populist, their familiarity reinforced by the sleeve notes. "Ravel's Bolero", is described as "the accompaniment to the famous love scene between Dudley Moore and Bo Derek in the hit movie 10".

Grainne Devine, marketing manager for Conifer Records, makers of Classic Climaxes, is candid about the message conveyed by the double entendre of the title and by the cover, a woman's face in soft focus tinted in reds and oranges to imply the heat of passion. "This music is sensual and sexual, it can be used before, during or after sex. It is so overwhelming we can't take responsibility for how people will react."

The man responsible for this musical sexual revolution is Bill Holland, general manager of Warner Classics UK who launched the label's highly successful Sensual Classics series three years ago. Tracks were chosen using the ultimate market research - volunteers played 40 extracts while making love, with the most popular choices used on the album. Seven had been used in films, television or advertising, indicating that listeners from non-classical backgrounds want greatest hits, not something new.

While the music was tried and tested, the cover packaging was a departure for a classical album. Sensual Classics and its two successors carry black and white photos of half-dressed couples. As Holland said: "This was a conscious decision to package classical music for the pop market. People buy tunes, that is what we are doing." The combination worked - Sensual Classics went on to sell 130,000 in the UK and 400,000 worldwide.

With the rise of the sex-themed compilation another phenomenon has emerged - the classical performer as sex symbol. Most prominent of these is teenager Vanessa-Mae who caused a stir this year by posing in a wet dress up to her thighs in water for the cover of her album The Violin Player.

Traditionalists within the classical world are sceptical of such tactics. Ted Perry, owner and managing director of highbrow independent classical label Hyperion argues those who get the glamour treatment are not always the best musicians. "It's a joke. People can see it for what it is, using irrelevant images to sell products, I find myself resisting it and it may be that other people are doing so too. In the end I hope talent will out."

Mr Perry thinks Bill Holland a "witty genius" but has no desire to follow in his footsteps: "To me the sexual connotations of something like Sensual Classics feel a bit desperate - it's about selling products. I just want to make good music but the big companies have to sell lots of records. They cheapen themselves to do so."

Holland disagrees, arguing that the revenue raised from themed albums is ploughed into new recordings. "Projects will get recorded that would otherwise not be made, we are building for the future."

He is used to facing his detractors every time he attends a music industry gathering. Holland remains unrepentant: "If something as wonderful as music that can move so much is kept by a privileged few it will die because the traditional buyers of classical music are an ageing and dying part of the population."

However, even purveyors of sex-orientated compilations recognise their limited life span. According to Simon Foster of RCA: "That image has had its day now, it's time to think about something else."

In the long term Foster hopes buyers of compilations will want to hear the snatches of music in the context of an entire opera or symphony but suspects this is some time off. "To expect that to happen now is too soon, it may happen when people who are now in their twenties and thirties are in their forties and fifties. But that's why we shouldn't have a downer on whats going on now."