Everyone has her or his own personal favorite recordings of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, stemming from expectations of how the music 'should' be played or what 'emotions' one should experience when listening to this music (even aside from the matter of staying as 'true to the score' as possible). I, for one, am very much in favour of a great deal of raw emotionality with this music, even if that means that sometimes the balances are becoming 'askew' as a result. But of course the balances don't have to be askew to get raw emotionality: I personally love Benjamin Zander's fantastically 'lean' and fresh but deeply inspired (and deeply inspiring) recording for Telarc, which is balanced in such a way as to subtely accentuate all of the different instrument groups. But I am also in favour of the wild abandon and 'gigantic' sound of Sir Simon Rattle's first commercial recording with Wiener Philharmoniker, however 'askew' (rather deep, resonant bass, and on the whole sounding rather distantly recorded) the balances may be. (Well, so much for personal tastes; I hope the reader is not too much offended by mine, which may be a bit eclectic.)
The following are my thoughts about this new recording by Rattle c.s. after listening to it for the first one or two times (and also taking into account the remarks by other reviewers, and testing them to what I have heard myself). This new recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony is, to my ears, characterized by finely balanced playing and recorded sound, exquisitely virtuosic, generally more 'comfortable' to the ears than Sir Simon Rattle's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. (But what does 'comfort' mean with this music, when the effect of this music on the listener is surely meant to be absolutely uncomfortable most of the time?) I, unlike other reviewers, am personally not much discomforted by the more balanced sound of the climax of the first movement - it does fit within the conception/sound of this performance as a whole, I believe: the low brass and the tam-tam are evenly balanced with the rest of the instruments, so that when they are played with the greatest possible force, the effect of the forces combined is more of a 'wave of sound' (and a rather 'refined', not too overwhelming soundwave at that) than of an 'attack': the 'edge' is taken off somewhat. In that sense, to my ears there is a resemblance between Sir Simon Rattle's and Michael Tilson Thomas' stance to this music: they both take, I believe, a (small) step back from the 'raw emotionality' of the music that other conductors sometimes like to stress, lifting it somewhat above the direct emotionality and and adding to it an air of nobility. (Some would feel this as 'emotionally detached', maybe.)
When listening to this particular performance, I find I am especially drawn into listening to the detailed and virtuoso playing of all the orchestra members, witnessing the infinitely varied instrumentation, where different instrumensts are often playing their own wi(l)dely different tunes. The same effect is taken to the best possible result, I believe, by Benjamin Zander with the Philharmonia Orchestra on Telarc. But where Mr. Zander creates more tension with his tasteful rubato and legato (and also the result of a greater range between fortissimos and pianissimos), and therefore - to the ears of this particular listener - more room for emotions, Mr. Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker sound, not so much 'emotionally detached', as more 'well-behaved' and 'held in check'. But that could also have to do with the recorded sound, which is more evenly balanced and close (is that why the violas in the coda sound 'too loud'?) than either the recording by Zander or by Rattle/Wiener Philharmoniker.
I very much like the way in which Sir Simon Rattle in this performance 'moulds' the orchestral lines into a beautiful 'organic whole'. The conductor at the same time takes delicate care that all the orchestral lines can be ascertained within the whole gigantic structure, thanks to a fine balancing of the instruments and instrument groups. If there is not the greatest amount of tension (compared with, for example, Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra) there certainly is grace, nobility and power. The power is not as raw or as fiercely intense as some might maybe wish sometimes. The power is, to my ears at least, rather 'contained' by the strong will of a conductor keeping tight rein on the proceedings. Ultimately, one might want to go for more abandon in this music, but there are recordings for that as well. Anyhow, one could of course never do with just one recording of this music. Although this recording does not in itself set an 'ideal standard' (which Zander in its own unique way maybe does), it is comparable to other great recordings of this work, if only because of the great virtuosity of playing, balance and ensemble.