Classical music has rarely tried to simulate-let alone activate-sexual intercourse. Occasions when it has include the climactic carnal duet in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea , Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps , and that perennial first-time sexual aid, Ravel’s Boléro . But from its very beginning, music has spoken of love-declaring it, longing for it, cursing it. I can’t guarantee whether the following recordings will have an aphrodisiac effect, but each of them, in its own way, sets a mood for some kind of romance to follow-though their musical charms are such that you might find yourself preferring to luxuriate in sheer listening, rather than turning your attentions to the object of your desire.
Haydn might be among the last composers to be thought of as erotic, so civilly are his passions expressed. However, civility can be arousing when it masks emotions that would be unleashed, given the right opening (think of the buried eroticism in Jane Austen). The decorous beating heart of Haydn’s 1779 opera L’Isola Disabitata palpitates according to a classic plot-love cruelly deferred culminates in love miraculously rescued. The setting is a deserted island where two ladies have been unceremoniously abandoned; nasty pirates hover unseen, and manly 18th-century gallantry triumphs. The opera is more recitative than aria-laden, which only adds to the erotic suspense. With the wise, witty Papa Haydn at the controls, you can be sure that the most buoyant of classical melodies will burst forth at just the right moments, ending in a symphonic-sized finale of joyous escape, full sail ahead. A superb cast-mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, soprano Ying Huang, tenor John Aler and baritone Christopher Schaldenbrand-is given scintillating support by David Golub and the Padua Chamber Orchestra. For good measure, the album includes a reading of Haydn’s beautiful deserted-island cantata Arianna a Naxos , sung with desolate conviction by Ms. Mentzer (Arabesque 6717-2).
Operagoers who saw the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro last fall were charmed by the contest of playfulness between the two most watchable-and perhaps listenable-young stars on the international circuit, the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel and the Italian mezzo Cecilia Bartoli. No singers today act more vividly through sheer voice than these two, and they are at their best in an album of duets by Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti, accompanied by Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia (London 458 928-2). Listening to the mischievous, never entirely melting Ms. Bartoli as she scampers away from, then merges with, the roguish, robust Mr. Terfel is to watch a fearless black kitten sporting with an agile, sweet-tempered sheepdog, each one taking the perfect measure of the other.
When Renée Fleming and Plácido Domingo opened the Met’s 1996-97 season in Verdi’s Otello , the audience heard one of the great vocal combinations of our time-caressing velvet on well-worn leather. But their repertoires haven’t meshed since, which makes their new album, Star-Crossed Lovers , with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, all the more valuable (London 289 460 793-2). A magnificent revisit to the great first-act duet of the Moor and his doomed Desdemona is the highlight of the set, much of which was recorded live at a gala concert in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. The evening also included selections involving the unlucky lovers in West Side Story and Faust , as well as the more fortunate pair in Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow .
As a bonus, the album features the superstars going back to their roots. Mr. Domingo, whose Dorian Gray tenor retains its clarion power, brings serious flair to an aria by the Argentine tango master Carlos Gardel and the Spanish zarzuela composer Federico Moreno Torroba. Ms. Fleming, who floats the longest soprano lines in the business and who once had ambitions as a jazz singer, makes the late Sarah Vaughan sound like a model of classical simplicity in her too virtuosically jazz-inflected renditions (dig those perfect quarter tones!) of three Duke Ellington standards. They are accompanied at the piano by Mr. Barenboim, who sounds at home in the Spanish stuff (he was born in Buenos Aires) and utterly out of his depth in the idiom of Harlem swank.
The century’s most romantic tenor? If you prefer a sensitive restraint which covers depths of feeling, a tone of unforced masculinity, and an easy-flowing lyricism that suggests a walk in the mountains rather than swagger in the piazza, then your man is Fritz Wunderlich, the tragically short-lived German tenor, who died in 1966. All of his peerless qualities are to be heard on an essential Wunderlich collection, beautifully remastered by Philips (420 852-2). It features songs by Beethoven (in the piercingly intimate “An die ferne Geliebte”), Haydn (in elegant settings of Scottish and Welsh folk songs) and Richard Strauss (including an exhilarating “Zueignung” and the most radiant, tender “Morgen” on disk).
For lovers of expensive, perfumed lingerie, a new recording of Maurice Ravel’s swoony Shéhérazade -redolent of opium, incense, darkening dusk and fiery dawns-is recommended (Philips 289 446 682-2). The finespun soprano of Sylvia McNair gleams through the penumbral Orientalia, brought glitteringly to life by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. Also included on the disk are Ms. McNair’s spirited reading of Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations , the English composer’s ecstatic settings of poems by the French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud. (Note the sexually pulsating triplets in “Being Beauteous.”)
In a generous afterthought, the album returns the favor by ending with a Frenchman’s appreciation of an English exoticist-Claude Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue , which pays tribute to The Blessed Damozel , a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with gold-threaded swatches of orchestral and choral color and languorous melodies for the soloist, all mirroring the painting’s swirly mixture of religious and sensual hunger. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus registers like creepy, vestal enablers to the damsel’s exquisite agonies, which, as sung by the creamy-voiced American mezzo Susan Graham, leave no doubt as to whose embraces she would rather enjoy, given the choice between God and a lover.