This recording is from the 1964 Brahms cycle, which to my mind (and apparently many critics) was Karajan's best Brahms cycle. Considering most of Karajan's work from the 60's tends to be a cut above his more mannered and fussy later recordings, it makes sense the same would hold here. Karajan submits a truly exceptional performance of Symphony No. 2, radiant and sunny as is befitting this lyrical, pastoral work, shining in particular during the neo-Beethovenian finale. Karajan's famous tautness of grip and sense of line is on full display here, as are his unwavering and immaculate orchestral forces, the BPO in its heyday. This is the finest 2nd I have heard, although Monteux' account is another performance I'd not be without. Symphony No. 3 on this disc is also quite good but may be the weakest entry of this particular cycle, which is hardly an insult at all as his accounts of 1, 2 and 4 are some of the best available. Karajan simply seemed to better understand this work in his mid-70s traversal, and to be fair this is a difficult beast to pull off and he nevertheless exceeds all but the best of interpretations. As an alternative for the 3rd, fine versions are available from the cycles put forth by Rafael Kubelik & the BRSO and Antal Dorati & the LSO, the Dorati 3rd being one of the all-time greats in my opinion.
Those unfamiliar with Karajan's Brahms should know that his textures are lush and dense. His readings compare favorably with other conductors that view these works in a similar light, such as Giulini, Kubelik and Walter to name a few. If you favor a leaner approach, like that of Szell, or Dorati, you may want to look elsewhere. But be advised that many critics agree that Karajan was a master of interpreting Brahms' language, and that is evident on this disc.
In general, what I've come to understand about Karajan is that he very rarely submits what you might call "the best" interpretation of any given work (his Strauss, Bruckner, and 1962 Beethoven 9 excepted, and this Brahms #2). What you are assured of though, are consistently very good interpretations - such as the Brahms #3 on this disc - flawless playing and plenty of drama and rhythmic drive. He may miss certain insights and lack the individuality of other conductors but his struggle for sonic perfection is not without its fruits. His full-bodied, yet smooth and streamlined approach works especially well for Brahms in my humble opionion.
The sound is fine. Considering this was recorded near the advent of Stereo, the sound is quite clear, if slightly distantly recorded. There is a touch of graininess in spots and DG's characteristic lack of bass, but then these recordings are more than 40 years old. DG has done what they can to restore the sound with their Image Bit Processing technique, and the results are more than adequate. Liner notes are well-written, albeit brief.
I would recommend this disc to the Brahms fan, but also the Karajan fan who has yet to be exposed to Karajan's earlier recordings, which as I said are by and large a cut above his 70s and 80s recordings, but until recently were much harder to come by. I would also recommend rounding out the cycle by purchasing Brahms #1/Schumann #1 and Karajan: The Music, The Legend, which has the 4th symphony.