THE SYMPHONY NO.2 by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is a great "classic" of the 1900's. His music explored "unknown regions" that make him sound quite contemporary. Sibelius developed his own musical idiom, forging his own voice ; carved in the stone of his native northern soil his frigid but so humane music, filled with warmth, achieved some of the most beautiful sounds in the symphonic form. Simultaneously, the Symphony No.2 is contemporary while containing a hint of archaic structures. The result is a powerful blend of northern, desolate sounds "attached" to sympathetic images or reflections. Echoes of Russian-style melodies, inherited from Tchaikovsky and a few others, are also discernible and add a fervor of their own.
Sakari's point of view translates into a definitely good attempt from the Icelandic orchestra, but there are so many great recordings out there---it makes the evaluation difficult and prone to be subjective. The Finnish conductor and his orchestra have recorded truly great accounts for their Sibelius cycle (Symphonies 6 & 7, and Symphonies 1 & 3). The best material on the cd is not the Symphony No.2, in my opinion, it's the first suite to 'The Tempest' (you can locate the second part on the Naxos cd including Symphonies 6 & 7). Technically and sonically speaking, yet, this cd of Symphony No.2 / Tempest is another excellent recording from Naxos, the engineering job virtually first rate as is often the case.
The Iceland Symphonic provides a Nordic work done by Nordic musicians ; still, for example, Saraste and the Finnish Radio Symphony reflect with slightly more ardor the "northern grasp" of the works. On the one hand you have a rendition of the symphony which "lacks something" : You can feel that something is missing, though it is not to a point to seriously lessen the listening pleasure. On the other hand the somewhat "warm" tone (to some extent) adds a certain flavor, the result is not unpleasant. The orchestra proceeds correctly although nothing's exceptional here, for we have a nice but not obliged playing when compared to the backbone competition. Sakari's direction seems accurate and the tempo is consistently precise and reasonably tight. Still, the orchestra cannot match (in the specific case of the Second Symphony) the top performances we currently encounter around the block.
The Second Symphony is "quite a tough nut to crack," indeed. It is surely one of the most difficult and distinctive symphonies to "catch". My personal favorites are the following ones : Sir John Barbirolli (Royal Philharmonic, recorded 1962 [Chesky])---among the few unsurpassed recordings. Great sound, wonderful reading. A near-perfect balance between sensitivity and firm dynamic power. And don't forget his forceful NewYork Philharmonic reading of 1940... Top recommendation! Sir Thomas Beecham (RPO, LPO)---Beecham produced a few of the finest performances of that symphony. You may like or not his approach, but his readings remain authoritative and they never sound vernacular. Each of Beecham's accounts on record is at least very good, if not excellent, and is stamped with his exceptional touch. Saraste (Finnish R.S.O. [RCA/Finlandia])---offers an attractive recording of the Second. What i appreciate is his dosage of feeling and technicality. There is a particular "gloss" to his fine rendition. And if you favor a distinctive approach with the best in digital sound, you could find the likes of Levi (on Telarc) and De Preist (on Delos) quite interesting readings in their own style. From the era of monophonic sound there are some great historical recordings, as well, that you could investigate.
Of course, there are MANY other conductors/orchestras who did great things with the famous Symphony No.2. Among the names to watch, apart the ones i've listed above, you'll usually find Paul Paray (Detroit [Mercury]) in a truly good reading---and with impressive sound ; Colin Davis (Boston [Polygram] and also London [RCA]) is generally seen as an essential interpreter of Sibelius, highly recommended ; Ashkenazy [London/Decca] offers an effulgent performance (you must check out his magnificent recording of the 7th, by the way) ; Monteux (LSO [RCA]) did, as well, an excellent, first-rate version of the 2nd Symphony ; Paavo Berglund, a great Sibelian, is another one to check out for ; Eugene Ormandy's version (Philadelphia [Sony]) is also a fine one. Paavo Jarvi's reading (Cincinnati [Telarc]) is intense and lively, with the spacious Telarc sound (his father, Neeme Jarvi, is also an excellent Sibelian---his own 2nd is a truly great, dynamic account) ; Segerstam [Ondine] could also make it at the top of your list. Temirkanov (St Petersburg) is supposed to be a sensation. And, if this is NOT enough Sibelius for you, there are Jansons, Abravanel, Vanska, Salonen, Stokowski, Maazel, Toscanini, Karajan, Berstein and Szell worth looking for... among others!
'The Tempest' is a very special piece of music ; a good performance must necessarily reflect the originality of the work. Although Segerstam strongly succeeds on this one, i recommend Sakari without reservations---in fact, i think his is one of the very few top notch recordings you are likely to hear. The fascinating Symphony No.2 under Sakari/Iceland is a "good effort", possessing intrinsic qualities, even if that's "not enough" to compete with the best. 'The Tempest' is another story : Here, the Icelandic players explode with skill and drama, and seem to feel at home more than in the accompanying symphonic traversal. The 'Storm' comes with a great surge of impact, while the more serene parts are carried over nicely. Overall, a good disc which i recommend given the enticing budget price of the Naxos. ****