First off, this is a budget re-release of a 1995 Teldec disc Schoenberg: Piano and Orchestral Pieces; you lose the fancy packaging and, presumably, the detailed notes, but the music is all here. It's an interesting and entertaining CD, well-worth adding to your collection, but there are no notes at all; not particularly helpful if you don't know this music.
The performances were recorded, very well, in November 1994 in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, and Barenboim and his band offer up a satisfying way into some of the least "difficult" of Arnold Schoenberg's masterpieces. I quite like Barenboim's idea of having a mix of orchestral and solo piano pieces on the one recording. The only small disappointment is "Verklärte Nacht", Op.4, which is given a slightly plodding performance; it's not quite as good as Herbert von Karajan's classic recording Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht, Pelleas und Melisande or the brilliant Amsterdam Sinfonietta disc on Channel Classics Brahms:String Quartet; Schoenberg: Verklarte Nacht; but it will be fine for most. This, of course, is the version for string orchestra, set by the composer in 1943 - it's a stunning piece of music.
Next we have the Three Piano Pieces, Op.11, given crystalline performances by Barenboim, closely followed by the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16, given in the original version by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. To try and imagine how these masterpieces must have come across when new, it is interesting to quote Ernest Newman, who went to a performance conducted by Arnold Schoenberg at the Queen's Hall in London in 1914 (they had been played before in London, disastrously, in 1912); Newman felt that he was hearing the music for the first time, as the works had been rehearsed and, of course, Schoenberg knew how they should go. After describing his experience of the particular performance (to read the whole article, "Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces", written for the Birmingham Post in 1914, see Testament of music: Essays and papers), Newman went on to say:-
"What distinguishes all Schoenberg's music since the Three Piano Pieces of Op.11 from his earlier work is the apparently deliberate throwing over of the century-old distinction between consonance and dissonance. Hitherto, though we have become more tolerant each decade of discords that our predecessors would have winced under, they have justified themselves to us by standing in some sort of logical relation to a central idea of consonance. Schoenberg upsets all this. He treats dissonance as a tonal language, complete and satisfying in itself, owing no allegiance, or even lip-service to consonance, either at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the work. It is amazing how far we can already go with him, how strangely beautiful and moving much of this music is, that, judged by the eye alone, is a mere jumble of discordant parts."
Newman was right, one hundred years ago, this is "strangely beautiful and moving music", and Barenboim gives us a great performance of the Fünf Orchesterstücke, in excellent Teldec sound.
Next we have the Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19, and this disc finished with Busoni's arrangement of the Piano Piece, Op.11, no.2.
In summary, if you want a disc of not-too-scary Arnold Schoenberg's earlier pieces, Barenboim's CD would be an excellent choice.