Gramophone loves Simon Rattle. I think Rattle is the new Von Karajan: better at P.R. than conducting, but prone to a few good moments. Therefore, I haven't bothered to listen to his new-ish Mahler 8, preferring Kent Nagano's really swell performance. Of course, Solti is emperor of the realm with this score. His drive and theatricality finally are a plus, not a detriment. In any event, I don't care what the critics say (except David Hurwitz, who generally favors my taste in Mahler), this Nagano set is probably the best of the decade.
However, this symphony bothers me. It is, and I'm lost for words here, too big. Even at the biggest moments in the 2nd, Mahler is intimate. He is always at hand, except in the 8th. Here, he seems to cease being the micro-manager and becomes the distant, unseen master of ceremonies. The overt spirituality is hard for me to grapple with, too. I tend to conceive of Mahler as a sometimes earnest, sometimes smirking symphonist who enjoys irony. It is hard to see the 8th as ironic in any meaningful way. I wonder how Pierre Boulez is going to grapple with this one, if he grapples with it at all. We'll see, after his new 2nd.
I can understand why people were put off by Mahler at the beginning when I listen to works like the 8th. The overt emotion, spirituality, and massive orchestration are off-putting to anyone. It is Mahler, and it is probably his most brilliant work (up there with Beethoven's 9th and Wagner's Ring for sheer creativity and scale), but it isn't my favorite. It's still the culmination of what Beethoven began with his 9th.