Frankly, I find Karajan's Nielsen No. 4 with the BPO from the early '80s to be a bit underwhelming, but hardly worthy of out-and-out dismissal. After a comparatively tepid burst out of the starting gate, the first movement grinds to near stasis before lumbering along for a protracted thirteen minutes, albeit with some sparkling soft magic, to its quiet segue into equally drawn-out second and third movements. The poco allegretto second features some fine, stately chamber-like interplay among the winds while the nearly twelve minute poco adagio third movement puts the famous Berlin strings on full display. The ensemble playing certainly sounds nice here, but it's an ameliorating consideration when this great symphony's dramatic cogency is so undermined by such polite and tidy pacing. While listening, I found myself admiring the orchestra more than being swept along by the drama. The all-important tympani battles in the finale are also noticeably "civilized" and more recessed in the scheme; they're thus heard as semi-distant fusillades instead of rapid stereo punches to the solar plexus -- I suppose this may actually appeal to some listeners.
Despite misgivings as to Karajan's seemingly tame approach to what should be nothing less than a depiction of the triumph of Man's capacity for creative good over those forces which would usurp it, I do find the overall performance to lend an affecting reverence to the music not heard in many others -- once again, an ameliorating consideration. In comparison, I find Simon Rattle's similarly deliberate approach to the Nielsen Fourth to be much more successful and satisfying (Sibelius: Symphony No. 5; Nielsen: Symphony No. 4).
What's somewhat disconcerting is the early '80s digital recording which is noticeably steely and bass shy, but the recording scheme is consistent with Deutsche Grammophon's general approach with these forces; i.e., strings and winds are in the forefront. More often than not, I've been able to adjust and appreciate it. In matters of interpretation, however, and as a requisite imploration to novice listeners, introduce yourself to this great symphony through any of the many other fine recordings before hearing Karajan's.