Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) recorded almost everything in the standard orchestral repertoire once, many works two or three times, between his 1950s recordings for EMI with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the early 1960s for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic, and his 1960s - 1989 recordings, mostly with the Berlin Philharmonic, for Deutsche Grammophon. In this collection of Tchaikovsky's 6 Symphonies, Karajan's only recordings of Symphonies 1, 2 and 3 are represented, dating from 1979 at the end of the analog era of recording technology, just before digital recordings became the norm. Symphonies 4, 5, and 6 date from 1976, and are analog sound, and Karajan's 2nd recording of these famous, oft recorded works for DG; he recorded Symphonies 4,5,6 in the mid 1960s with the Berlin Philharmonic, and again in the late 1980s for DG (with the Vienna Philharmonic). Karajan also recorded Symphonies 5 and 6 in Berlin for EMI in the 1970s. Whew! It gets confusing keeping track of all these recordings!
Karajan does best here with Symphonies 1 and 2. Symphony 1, "Winter Dreams" has tempos slightly slower than some conductors take, but things never drag, and the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is so beautiful and expressive. Symphony 2, "Little Russian" also has slightly slower than average tempos, but is very well paced, and sounds very beautiful under Karajan's direction. III and IV are very well played, with appropriate spirit and fire.
Symphony 3, nicknamed "Polish" by Tchaikovsky's publisher (not the composer!) is really strange, as Karajan conducts some fast sections at slower than usual tempos, and the slow movements at faster than usual tempos. It borders on the bizarre. Worst of all is V, the "Polacca" movement which drags mercilessly in the coda, towards the end. Every other recording I've heard really hauls this final section at a hell-for-leather pace, but Karajan goes very slowly until the final section of the coda. This is the most mannered recording I've heard of Karajan, and the poorest recording I've heard of this least recorded symphony by Tchaikovsky, which I dearly love.
Symphony 4 is very well played, but cold, and clinical in it's execution. Symphonies 5 and 6 are well played, too, but competition here with other recordings is fierce, and there are some pizzicato (plucked string) passages in Symphony 5: II which are not together, and really spoil the feeling of continuity in this movement. Also, Symphony 5 is generally played legato to the extreme, and very slowly in parts which should move at a faster pace. I can't say why I don't like Karajan's later Tchaikovsky symphonies, I just don't and prefer other recordings.
The recorded sound is quite good throughout, but I wouldn't recommend this, for the reasons mentioned above.
If I were building a "dream collection" of Tchaikovsky Symphonies, I would recommend:
Symphony 1 "Winter dreams" - Michael Tilson Thomas/Boston Symphony (DG)
Symphony 2 "Little Russian" - Igor Markevitch/London Symphony (Philips Duo, with Symphonies 1 and 3)
Symphony 3, "Polish" - Antoni Wit/Polish national Radio Orchestra (Naxos)
Symphony 4 - Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony Essential Classics)
Symphony 5 - Seiji Ozawa/Berlin Philharmonic (DG Eloquence series)
Symphony 6 - Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony Essential Classics)