...though I have to admit I can't vouch for Erwartung. That work is as impenetrable to me as to anybody else (ESPECIALLY WITHOUT THE TEXT! WHY, EMI, WHY?!?!). All I know is that Phyllis Bryn-Julson is a spectacular soprano, and I trust her to give as great a performance of this work as any she's sung. Given just how introverted the piece is, it's difficult to do more than simply listen to it as if it was entirely abstract, and hope for the best. As for the other pieces...
Verklarte Nacht is given a particularly rare, intimate and intense performance of the quintet original by the Artemis Quartet and Valentin Erben on the first disc. This performance is as spectacular as any I've heard.
The Chamber Symphonies are well done. Simon Rattle surprisingly manages to maintain a large amount of tension throughout the first, given just how obvious the derivation of everything from the main themes is. For instance the beginning of the third track really brings to mind Schoenberg's Third Orchestral Piece (of the Five) until the fourths begin to stack to lead to the opening motto.
The Second Chamber Symphony is also given a wonderful reading, this time by Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra (of all ensembles, who would guess?), that perfectly channels all the feelings of desolation in the coda, and makes clear just how much it looks to the past for inspiration. There's even a repeated note ostinato in the fast section, very atypical of Schoenberg!
And now we've come to the real meat of the set: the Five Orchestral Pieces. They are given a bracing reading by Simon Rattle on the second disc.
In the first piece, certain sections could be less rushed or milked more for the dramatic impact than Rattle does, such as the part where muted trombones are the only things left in the fast section right before the sort of "Schoenbergian apocalypse," as you might put it. And the transition leading into the fast section seems really rushed. Other than that, this reading can and will make milk curtle and hair stand on end! The second of five is absolutely gorgeous, everything taken perfectly, with just the right timbre! You can feel the deep-felt emotion all the way through, though especially in the first part. With Schoenberg, it's all about the atmosphere! The celesta is especially haunting at this speed, I must say. The third of five is a little harder to understand than the rest. Many people say it's meant to depict a lakeside in the evening. It would make sense, because the atmosphere in this recording makes it so you can almost feel the ripples of a fish jumping. Certain parts could have been a little softer compared to the rest of the movement, though. Overall it is recorded at a very low volume setting, making you somewhat fearful of the next movement, when you have to rush to the volume just to turn it down, for fear of being blasted by the trumpet run of...
...the penultimate movement. Its sense of angst is a little less than other readings, I must say, until near the end. The last movement is given an especially lyrical reading by Rattle, though I usually like it to go a touch faster. You can really hear the melody being handed from one instrument to the next. Overall this reading of the Five Orchestral Pieces makes it's position as an extension of Late-Romanticism into atonality and German Expressionism quite clear. There is very little in this that, like so many atonal works, is impenetrable and un-evocative. For a companion disc I would probably choose Robert Craft's reading, newly available on Naxos at rock-bottom prices.
I can't QUITE say the same of the Variations. It is very hard to discern the melody. For reasons mainly due to the audibility of an odd percussion instrument, the sheer beauty of the reading by Boulez on Sony has made it my version of preference. This is a great reading, no doubt, but not the best one I've ever heard.
Overall, this set has so much going for it, and, given the low price, there is little standing in the way of it getting my recommendation. If you want Erwartung, though, I would definitely get the evocative version with Jessye Norman and James Levine; it has the libretto! But everything else is worth every penny.