When I first decided to compare these two recordings, I thought that choosing between them would be a daunting task. I had always enjoyed the sound and performance of the Judd recording, and kept that CD in my permanent collection; when I heard the new Levi recording, I was also quite impressed with both the sound and the performance. I figured that it was going to be a lot of work to pick a winner from these two. Not so, however.
When you listen to the Judd recording, it sounds warm and natural, and there is a nice sense of sonic perspective. But when you actually sit down and compare it to the Levi, the Judd begins to sound dark, distant, and diffuse. In the opening movement, for example, the lower strings in the Levi provide a solid foundation for the structure of the music, while in the Judd, the lower strings seem a bit muffled and homogenized in sound. As the movement goes on, you become aware that not only does the engineering of the Telarc proved a richer sound than the HM, but that the Atlanta forces, particularly the strings, simply have the Florida forces outgunned.
In the "Blumine" movement, Judd's interpretation seems more dreamlike, while Levi seems to bring more ardor to his interpretation. I should point out here that the HM disk places this movement last, the idea being that because Mahler removed it from the work, they have provided it as a supplement that you can program in if you would like, the "default" program being to hear the four-movement final product. The Telarc disk takes the opposite tack, placing "Blumine" second among the movements, thus making the "default" option to hear the work as a five-movement composition. There are advantages to both approaches. (Personally, I much prefer the work without "Blumine," and will have a bit to say about that later.)
In the third, dance-oriented, movement, Judd's performance comes across as just too smooth. Levi brings more energy to his performance, and once again the superior sound of the lower strings really drive this recording, augmented by the stronger sound of the Atlanta brass.
And so it goes in the final two movements, where the superior bass sound of the Telarc recording and the more powerful Atlanta orchestra give the edge to the Telarc release. Make no mistake, the Harmonia Mundi recording and performance are excellent, but in both respects the Telarc is even better, making it my clear favorite in this comparison.
However, my first recommendation for this work would not be the Telarc, but rather the DG release featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez. The sound quality is comparable to the Telarc, the orchestra plays superbly, and Boulez somehow manages to make the finale sound convincing, something Levi cannot quite manage. What's more, the DG release does not include "Blumine," which in my book is a plus.