First of all, ignore Hurwitz (always a good idea in any case). This is not Herbie's last cycle (nor is his last cycle, when Herbie was half deaf and half dead, his best). Nor is it, as some reviewers below have said, his first. (That's on EMI.) As far as I can tell, this his second, though his first for DG. This is one of my very favorite recordings of No. 2 out there. Karajan is often accused of being too soft-edged and thick with the strings, but this is, to my ears, just what the doctor ordered for the Second, and those glorious Berlin strings shine. (Somehow British or American or Russian ochestras can't compete in this kind of music.) Karajan has a great sense of the architecture of this music; be forwarned he does not take repeats, but I don't care, I don't feel it diminishes this performance. In fact, Brahms himself, near the end of his life, begged a conductor to omit the repeats in a performance of the second symphony. The conductor was surprised, because at the premiere Brahms had taken them all. Brahms supposedly replied, "No one knew the tunes then."
But we all know the tunes now. And what glorious tunes they are. Some conductors almost seem embarrassed to take the Big Themes in all their glory, as though this symphony is too naive or something. Well, that was the essence of Brahms--a crotchety old guy who was really a big softie at heart. And that heart is on his sleeve in this work. The Finale is the most exuberant, thrilling reading I've ever heard (save for another, earlier Karajan perfomrnace, on EMI.) The energy is exhilerating; this is Brahms in love with the world.
The 3rd symphony is less successful, but that's not surprising. There are few recordings in existence where the conductor seems to know what to do with this enigmatic work. Even the great Furtwangler couldn't seem to decide if this is an intimate or thunderous work. The only conductor who has gotten this just right of all the recordings I've heard (Jochum, Solti, Barenboim, Masur, Furtwangler, Karajan, Bernstein, Mengelberg) is Mravinsky, with the former Leningrad Philharmonic, on BMG/Melodiya. Yet, I can't put into words *why* that recording works so well, so I've yet to review it.
Now for the bad news. The sound on this issue is awful--fuzzy and distant. I used to have this on scratchy used vinyl (original issue) and, pops and clicks aside, that sounded better than this CD, so I tried to ignore the pops and listened to the vinyl rather than this CD. But there is hope! There's a French version of this very same pairing that has excellent sound. It comes in a yellow cardboard sleeve and the notes are entirely in French. And the good news is Amazon is now carrying it--for a long while it didn't. Hear the same music that's here, only remastered *properly.* I've reviewed that better set elsewhere, so if you think you're interested, just go to "See all of my review" and search for it. Happy listening.