I had hoped to pick up both CDs at the same store, but the first shopping trip netted me only the Naxos version by Bakels. I had not played the Sinfonia Antartica for some time, but it did not take me long in listening to the Naxos version to hear that this was a performance and recording that was highly charged with energy. Some of the climaxes in the first movement were quite emphatic, and the organ in the third movement was recorded more powerfully than I had ever remembered hearing it. My initial feeling was that for a bargain, I was really getting bang for the buck (and I only spent about six of them). The recording was fun to listen to, and I played it a few times at home, in the car, and at work before I finally tracked down the Boult, which set me back about ten bucks.
In some ways, the Boult almost sounded like a different work. Gone were the explosive climaxes, the organ was much more diminutive, and frankly, I found myself disappointed and surprised that the Boult version seemed so tame compared to the Bakels. But I found the piece to be such an old friend, and the recordings so different, that I just kept listening to them, over and over--not really comparing them head to head, but rather trying to really get the full measure of each recording on its own terms before trying to measure each closely against the other in a more disciplined comparative listening session.
As I did this, I found the Bakels version sounding more and more mannered--even annoying at times, as in the big climaxes in the first movement, where Bakels always seemed to be telegraphing his punches. I could virtually hear the orchestra taking a deep breath and "winding up" to deliver a telling blow. This effect might be sonically exciting, but musically, it is less than satisfying. The Boult performance, although outwardly tamer, began to sound more and more musically satisfying, more refined, and more likely to wear well over the long haul.
As I did more careful listening, I found that there were things to admire about both CDs. The Boult seemed to have more of an integrated conception both in sound and performance. One way to describe it is to say that under Boult, the piece sounds more like a symphony, whereas under Bakels, it sounds more like a series of tone poems. Even the sound quality contributed to this effect, with the Boult sounding wider but not as deep, while the Bakels tended to separate instruments more clearly, while at the same time conveying greater depth. The biggest sonic difference was in the organ underpinning in the third movement, with the organ sound being given a more prominent place in the mix in the Bakels version. Still, the Boult seemed a bit more atmospheric, more chilling; in a piece titled Sinfonia antartica, chilling is good. Overall, I simply found the Boult to be a more satisfying performance, and the sound, while not the best, eminently satisfying and appropriate.
Still, the Naxos recording is quite admirable, and a tremendous bargain at its price. The more I listen to it, in fact, the more I am impressed by its sonic impact, and I am beginning to think that the sound is so impressive that it actually makes the performance seem more melodramatic than Bakels intended it to be. Has the medium become the message? (With bass like that on the Bakels disk, and a good subwoofer, the medium can definitely become the massage.)
For some folks, the choice between these two releases might come down to the couplings. The Naxos features the 8th Symphony, a basically pastoral piece with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink percussion section in the finale that is a lot of fun, while the Boult features the Aristophanic Suite from "The Wasps," a really enjoyable piece with its own moments of percussive propulsion.
Given that the price of the Boult is not that much more than the Bakels, I would recommend the Boult more highly, especially to the first-time buyer who has not heard this symphony before, but for sheer glory of sound, the Bakels cannot be beaten. In terms of performance, though, neither of these disks quite matches the Vernon Handley version on EMI Eminence (CD-EMX 2173, recorded in 1990 and released in 1991), but the Bakels CD has the best sound.