I have been listening to a lot of different recordings of Brahms symphonies recently and admiring many, but it has to be said that despite the merits of conductors as varied as van Zweden, Abbado and even Walter, no-one comes within a mile of replicating the combination of qualities Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic bring to this muscular music.
I personally think that among his many achievements and pace his legion detractors, the very best of Karajan is to be found in his Strauss and his Brahms. Comparison between the Allegro last movement of his and, say, van Zweden's recordings of Brahms' Third, reveals that despite the energy and flexibility of the latter's version, he cannot begin to achieve the synthesis of controlled precision, glowing orchestral sound and sheer, knife-edge abandon Karajan brings to this music. It is simply nowhere near as exciting; nor does he conjure the massive sonorities Abbado elicits from the same orchestra, which compensate for a more measured approach. I use the Brilliant disc for comparison to illustrate that anyone on a budget need look no further than this super-bargain DG issue; it is available for little more than postage on Marketplace. The Netherlands Philharmonic is fine but they are not the Berlin Phil of the late 70's, who have a kind of lithe, pantherish aptitude for Brahms.
Throughout his long career, Karajan remained the most persuasive advocate of Brahms' symphonies; this middle-period duo is in excellent sound and is probably the best of his four studio versions. It stands proudly alongside the magnificent 1988 live Brahms First on Testament.