I could see this new live recording of Mahler's Second Symphony becoming my absolute favourite. Time will tell. At the present moment, all I can say is that it really is quite magnificent: a triumph.
You've got to hand it to Rattle & EMI: all the remakes of his Mahler recordings have been improvements. The Seventh, the Ninth, the Tenth and now the Resurrection as well. With any luck they'll give us a new Titan to replace the dreary Birmingham recording. I had been trepidatious as I waited for my pre-order to arrive. So cheap, live in the awkward recording acoustic of Philharmonie and with none of the visual splendour of Rattle's award-winning CBSO recording (c.1986, with an awesome reproduction of a dies irae on the front).
I have heard more in this recording, courtesy of the Berlin Philharmonic, than I ever guessed was in the score beforehand. So wise to put the first movement on a separate disc; it needs a break afterwards, for more than before this new version from Rattle is tone-poetry of the most uncanny and expressive kind. Once again, a new Rattle recording makes one sit up and take note. I was never happy with the older version - it always sounded a bit dull and the orchestra a bit distant. In my opinion this is sonically superior as a recording, right down to the offstage band, the organ, the hushed choral entry; even a touch of humour to the introductory timps of the Wunderhorn scherzo. There is more corporate excellence to this orchestra and if the choir do not exactly eclipse their Birmingham forerunners they certainly don't fall short.
Above all, there is the conductor, seemingly more in love with the symphony than ever before. It was his first Mahler. Mine too, and mine was with a conductor I believe Rattle admires: Rafael Kubelik. In the superb essay accompanying this CD the influence of Beethoven's Ninth is discussed and once or twice I felt a hankering after Kubelik's sense of line and momentum; his determination not to over-indulge Mahler's neuroses. But does he then underplay them? Anyone who has heard the live 1980s Kubelik recording on Audite will know that his interpretation became bolder and more expansive over time, just as Sir Simon's has.
A more fitting comparison might be made with Bernstein (NYPO, also late '80s). There is equal beauty in this Berlin Philharmonic recording, though less voluptuous beauty. There is no lack of theatricality either, but what really tells is the time saved as Bernstein's helter-skelter reading adds maybe another six minutes and he goes way over the top for the choral outburst at the end. The crash, when it comes in the third movement, is way more terrifying with Rattle and the closing bars more revelatory at the symphony's ecstatic peroration. Rattle also has the better contralto, although neither on this form can approach Janet Baker.
So to sum up, I think this is way more exciting and more beautifully executed than Rattle's CBSO version and when you can say you heard new things in a familiar piece of music - and that they were good things - then there really is no argument. At an unbelieveably affordable price and with an excellent booklet, you cannot afford to ignore this masterful Mahler 2nd.
UPDATE (JULY 2013): listening again and one cannot fail to apprehend the sheer beauty, the colossal power, of this Berlin Philharmonic performance. It really is a great live recording from EMI and no matter how taken the critics were with Jurowski or Tennstedt, the new Rattle should not be ignored.