Although these two recordings were never meant as companions (unlike the Brahms violin concerto recorded by Oistrakh with Szell three days after the Double Concerto, respectively 12-13 and 16 May, 1969, Brahms: Violin Concerto / Violin Sonata No. 3), the pairing is logical. The two compositions are usual and logical bedfellows on disc because of their unusual array of soloists, the soloists here are shared (with the addition of Richter in Beethoven's triple concerto) and the Beethoven was recorded only a few months after the Brahms, on 15-17 September 1969. They are also excellent versions, although I would not place them among the "great recordings of the century", if only because Oistrakh's earlier recordings of both compositions for EMI (Beethoven in 1958 with his usual trio partners of those years Lev Oborin and Stanislav Knushevitzky under Malcolm Sargent, Brahms in 1956 with Pierre Fournier under Alceo Galliera, both with the Philharmonia), while not on a par sonically, were, overall, even better interpretively: Triple Violin Concerto.
The highly controversial English music critic Norman Lebrecht has given pride of place (so to speak) to Karajan's Triple Concerto in his list of "The 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made" - and it is pure crap, based on gossiping rather than listening, and apparently motivated by his general hatred of Karajan rather than by any fair hearing of the recording (see my review of Lebrecht's book for more, The Life and Death of Classical Music: Featuring the 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made). But, other than by the blanket Karajan-hatred entertained in some circles, the controversy around this recording is also stoked up by bitter comments made later by Richter about the recording process and the purported unhappiness of the three soloists with some of Karajan's tempi - although Richter's comments were very imprecise, not saying which or why (see the comments under J.B. Roberts' review for the exact comments and source).
I also found a webiste that briefly mentioned Richter's rehearsal anecdote, but also quoted Oistrah as saying that Karajan was "the greatest living conductor, a master in every styles." Anyway, to try and get a clue of what might have been the problem with Karajan's recording and tempi, I went back to Oistrakh's previous recording of the Triple Concerto with Sargent, but also listened to the live recording made in Moscow, only a few months after the recording with Karajan, under Kondrashin, a conductor with whom the trio had a long established artistic relation (documented back to 1947 for Oistrakh, 1950 for Richter and 1960 for Rostropovich), and whose first movement only, frustratingly, is included in EMI's 13-CD tribute, Rostropovich: The Russian Years, 1950-1974. So you'd think you'd find there whichever tempi the three artists were happy with.
And, indeed: Karajan leads a slightly more spacious first movement (17:49) than both Sargent (17:05) and Kondrashin (17:17). Now, is it for a difference of 30 seconds out of 17+ that Richter carped? Between Karajan and the two others the difference of timings is 3 to 4 %. Well, who knows, to a very fastidious mind, this might make a world's difference.
But seriously. Karajan's version needs to be listened to on its own terms, not in the light of what Richter later said about it. Karajan's first movement might be slightly less urgent than the two others', it expounds an expansive view, unfolding very naturally, almost nonchalantly at times even, more lyrical and polished than Kondrashin's (there is a kind of raging determinacy there with Oistrakh and Rostropovich in some of the more dramatic passages), but it sits well with this work, whose kinship with both the Pastorale (and indeed both works were conceived at the same time) and even with Schubert's Trout Quintet strikes me, and there is a great mood of playfulness in the exchanges between the three soloists. Now, if ever Oistrakh was, as Richter claimed, also unhappy with Karajan's tempi, it could not have been in the finale (12:52), since it is quasi-identical in timings with Sargent's (12:56), even the Allegro section before the coda (starting at 10:12 with Karajan and 10:16 with Sargent) is identical in both sections, and those tempi are eminently catholic, neither particularly urgent nor particularly spacious, eliciting a fine mood of genial playfulness.
Remains the Largo, then. It is frustrating not to have Kondrashin's, it would have been revelatory to see of the trio reiterated the very slow tempo adopted in 1969 or if it was something proper to Karajan. As beautiful as was the 1958 Largo, the effect here is hauntingly moving and the apex of this reading, with silky, caressing strings and three soloists with the tone and touch to sustain the time-suspended pace. Other than the most insincere and biased Karajan-bashers, I don't see how anybody with ears in functioning order could fail to be moved by it.
Sure I can fault Karajan and the sonics on a few details - but not his tempi, which other than the Largo are in fact very catholic: in particular, his orchestral textures in the outer movements are too thick and "symphonic" for the genial character he gives to the music, lacking crispness in the staccato playing of the strings, covering the extremes - basses and sometimes horns and oboes - in the tutti (which is inherent to the fact that the body of strings is basically too large for Beethoven's scoring) and too distant in relation to the soloists in the tutti of the Finale. But there aren't so many tutti in the Finale, and there is nothing in all this to diminish the value of this version. The relative thickness of the orchestra might have prompted me to give preference to the 1958 recording (Oborin and Knushevitzky have little to envy from Richter and Rostropovich in terms of technical authority and interpretive imagination, and Oistrakh's tone is even more beautiful than in 1969) but it is not on a par sonically, with significant tape hiss and the soloists not as clearly and brilliantly recorded as in 1969. And the 1969 Largo remains incomparable, second only to the one, similar in conception and even more beautiful in execution, by the 1962 Marlboro team of Serkin Laredo Parnas Schneider (Beethoven Triple Concerto/Brahms Double Concero: Serkin, Stern). Not that other approaches, more urgent, can't be conceived, but it is truly, in its own style, a classic.
It is fascinating to follow the artistic development of Oistrakh through his successive recordings of Brahms' double concerto. It confirms the general rule (but not an absolute one: Toscanini and Heifetz are notable exceptions) that performers mellow and pace down as they age. I haven't heard Oistrakh's 1946 (some sources say 1947) recording with Milos Sadlo and the Prague Radio Orchestra under Karel Ancerl, but I have his second studio recording, with Knushevitzky and the Leningrad Radio Orchestra under Karl Eliasberg, which discographic sources date from 1948 (although on my French Chant du Monde CD, volume 12 of their David Oistrakh Edition released in the late 1980s and listed nowhere, it sounds much better than what you'd expect of a Soviet recording from that vintage - see my review of David Oistrakh Plays Doubles for more details on that dating issue). While already displaying Oistrakh's unique lyricism, it is also faster than his subsequent studio recordings, and (thanks also to Eliasberg whipping his orchestra to great intensity), it is also more fiery, almost Heifetzian even, with an undertone of unrest and inquietude in the central andante. The 1956 recording with Galliera has more of a classical poise, Galliera goes slightly more for power and grandeur rather than bite and drive (which doesn't mean that it is dispassionate in any way), and the andante, taken at a very held-back tempo, is imbued with a uniquely tender lyricism.
Szell is even more expansive in the outer movements (compare his first movement 16:43 to Galliera's 16:04 and Eliasberg's 15:10) , but he avoids any impression of sluggishness thanks to the great mass and power of his orchestral outbursts, and the bite of his accents and staccato. Still, despite the 1956 early stereo with limited spread and significant tape hiss (especially when you crank up the volume), I would give the edge to the earlier version.
The 1969 recording isn't ideal either; it was the first recording made by the EMI engineers of the Cleveland Orchestra, and the orchestra doesn't have the clarity and transparency you'd expect of a 1969 recording, with even a hard edge in the tutti. There is also a thickness and lack of bounce of those tutti in the finale (try at 1:00), but that must be ascribed to Szell rather than to the sound engineer, and in that finale one may prefer Galliera's marginally stronger drive and bite. As recorded in 1969, Oistrakh doesn't quite reproduce either the angelic beauty and sweetness of tone of his former 1956 self. For all Oistrakh's and Rostropovich's involvement, there are some spots in the first movement where one also feels them tempted to over-express. But it is especially in the andante that Szell and his soloists fail to entirely recapture the special magic of the 1956 version.
Needless to say, all these remarks are only comparative. This is an outstanding version in its own right, and a safe recommendation for those who might be bothered by the more rustic stereo and pronounced tape hiss of the 1956 recording. But those who have never heard the 1956 Brahms andante must know that they will have missed something.