When I first thought about comparing these two recordings, I thought it was going to be a breeze to listen to some good Mahler and then dash off a few paragraphs of pompous purple prose comparing the approaches of these two very different conductors: the Frenchman Boulez, widely regarded as cold and analytical in his conducting, and the Italian Abbado, by stereotypical default a more passionate conductor, and in this instance recorded in a live concert venue. Surely, I thought, these would be widely varying interpretations, and there would be no problem in comparing them. But as Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson once sang, "Nothing is easy..."
First off, let me say that both of these CDs are excellent recordings. I have owned many recordings of the 5th, and the Abbado was the best I had ever owned--excellent in both performance and sound. In fact, it was good enough to finally replace the Sinopoli recording from my collection. Sinopoli's performance was very good, but the sound was a bit bright in the old DG tradition. The "4D" process embraced by DG made a remarkable improvement in the sonic quality of their recordings, and both the Abbado and the Boulez are superb sonically.
When I first brought home the Boulez and fired it up on my "reference system" (sorry, but from time to time I have to force myself to use the politically correct audiophile jargon. I usually just call it my "stereo"), I was impressed that it was a wonderful performance in excellent sound, and marveled that DG could already have two first-rate 4D recordings of this work competing with each other on record-store shelves. I also began to wonder which version would wind up being my preferred one.
In the first movement, I found that I very slightly preferred the sound quality of the Boulez recording; however, it was hard to tell how much of the sonic difference was attributable engineering and how much to the performances themselves. The "Boulez sound" seemed slightly warmer, with more layers to the soundstage and better articulation. My guess is that the majority of this difference is attributable to the performance. Countering this slight advantage to Boulez and the Vienna musicians, however, was the more palpable sense of excitement in the performance by Abbado and his Berliners (the musicians, not the pastries). Based on the first movement, this is going to be a tough choice.
In the vehement second movement, I found the sound and the performance of the Boulez recording significantly clearer. There seemed to be some slurring and blurring of lines in the Abbado that I had never really paid any attention to until I heard the outstanding precision of the Boulez.
In the third movement, a scherzo, again there was more clarity in the Boulez recording. This time, however, I felt the difference was more attributable to engineering than to performance. Again, I must stress that both versions were excellent, but I did prefer the slightly more focused sound of the Boulez version. Boulez is starting to edge ahead.
On to the famous Adagietto, a meltingly beautiful piece of music that for many listeners is the highlight of this symphony. From the stereotypes, one would expect Abbado to play this movement slowly and emotionally and Boulez to dispatch it with quick, clinical precision. If so, one would be half right. Amazingly enough, it is Boulez who times out much slower, a mere second below eleven minutes, while Abbado gets through the movement just a mere second above nine minutes. Although the Boulez has great clarity, it is the "singing" quality of the Abbado that makes the stronger impression. This is the movement that brings out the greatest contrast between the two recordings, and for me at least, was the one movement where Abbado was clearly preferable.
The final movement was again very close for me, but in the end, the slightly greater clarity of sound and precision of performance in the Boulez version gave the Frenchman's recording a narrow advantage.
Overall, then, I have slight preference for Boulez/Vienna. But I will definitely keep both recordings, because the Abbado/Berlin is also quite excellent, and has a better Adagietto. You can't go wrong with either recording.