When Sir Simon Rattle took over the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, he had a long history as a Mahlerian. It was a natural decision to celebrate the commencement of his tenure by recording the 5th, the only Mahler symphony he hadn't previously recorded. But for many of us, Rattle's love for Mahler has been overshadowed by the incomparable high Abbado had achieved as a Mahlerian. One guesses that Rattle felt pressured to sound individual.
And there's certainly a big difference. Rattle's entire outlook on Mahler seems to come from a different perspective. I've come to the conclusion that Abbado is an optimist in Mahler, while Rattle is a pessimist. So where Abbado takes a big sigh of relief and hope, Rattle shivers in bleak despair. The similarity between the two readings is also clear, not only because Abbado and Rattle share the same orchestra but also because they both have an eye for sensitive phrasing.
Rattle takes the opening Funeral March with a definite air of sadness--not quite tragedy. He doesn't go for all-about abandon, but his deliberation seems to add to his approach. The atmosphere is haunting, dark, and ambiguous, with chords that are voiced to have a piercing effect. The mood is much the same in the 2nd movement, where Rattle sounds particularly urbanized. This is a highly modernized approach in a good way; the music is bleak and desperate, with dizzying playing from the Berliners. Should this movement be terse and nerve-wracking? Is so, it could hardly be done better.
The highlight in the 3rd movement is Stefan Dohr's incomparable horn solo. Rattle is more generic than Abbado, who took opportunity to open the windows to bask in the sun--a relief after the intensity of the preceding movements. Rattle remains controlled but his eye for detail is hard to match, as is his ability make Mahler sound overwhelmingly huge in scope. The Adagietto seems to play itself, but it helps when the orchestra is the Berlin Phil. Rattle lines up most closely to Abbado here, actually, although Rattle is less lyrical and more convulsive. In the finale, Rattle continues to relish big, crushing sounds and while some of his rivals are more exciting, it's hard to find competition that digs in deeper. Is Rattle's controlled vehemence something to be admired? I find it thrilling, but perhaps it's an acquired taste.
To summarize, upon returning to this disc, I was surprised to see how close it is to Abbado. I still definitely prefer Abbado, but Rattle's more reticent approach has me captivated, for reasons I find hard to explain.
(This is a complete rewrite of my original review from April 2013. The original review can be found in the comments section.)