Though Eliesha Nelson's Permutations is formally speaking a classical recording, it's at times so infused with jazz feeling it could conceivably be filed in the jazz section, too. Joined on three of the album's five pieces by pianist James Howsmon, Nelson's a Grammy-nominated violist who demonstrates an avowed passion for celebrating underappreciated composers. All but one of them are American, namely John McLaughlin Williams, Ross Lee Finney, George Walker and Jeffrey Mumford, with Russian Nikolai Kapustin the exception. What's common to all five, however, is that all of their technically challenging viola works address aspects of American music, albeit in different ways. For anyone new to the Alaska-born Nelson, she took up the violin at six, moved to Ohio ten years later to attend the Young Artists Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music (where she joined the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra from 1989 to 1991), and gradually acquired experience as a soloist playing with various orchestras. Permutations is her third solo release, preceded by Quincy Porter: Complete Viola Works (a Grammy winner in 2010) and Russian Viola Sonatas with pianist Glen Inanga.
That Kapustin incorporates American jazz elements into his music is evident from the first moments of his richly melodic Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 69 when its opening Allegro movement presents a sprightly dance that swings with a bluesy jazz feel. Nelson's viola sings sweetly during the opening movement's dream-like passages, though she and Howsmon are more than up to meeting the challenge of the work's demanding uptempo episodes, too. The graceful slow movement that follows spotlights Nelson's sweet side again, while the high-spirited concluding movement lives up to its Vivace marking. Williams composed his purposely virtuosic Two Pieces for Solo Viola with Nelson in mind, and, while the piece is brief at five-and-a half minutes, it nevertheless affords her ample opportunity to exercise her ravishing technique. Though Mumford conceived his rhapsodic Wending as a musical portrait in celebration of the phenomenal gifts of violist Wendy Richman (and based much of its harmonic material on certain letters of her name: wEnDy riCHmAn), Nelson makes his serpentine exploration very much her own.
The earliest piece on the album is Finney's Second Sonata for Viola and Piano, which, written in 1953, adheres to the twelve-tone serialism technique associated with Arnold Schoenberg (as well as his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern). The four-movement work is no less musical than the other pieces on the album, however, especially when Finney's application of Schoenberg's technique doesn't rule out melody as a powerful component (in that regard, the piece has perhaps more in common with Berg than Schoenberg). Nelson and Howsmon bring the material to life with the same degree of conviction they do everything else on the recording, and nowhere is her tone more affectingly displayed than during the lovely slow movement. Composed in 1989, Walker's Sonata for Viola and Piano concludes the recording with an atonal, two-movement work that naturally complements Finney's piece. Alternating generally between fast and slow movements, Permutations provides a wonderful showcase for both viola works that deserve to be better known and for Nelson's artistry and plentiful technical gifts. Mention should be made also of the fact that the release is issued on Sono Luminus, which, as it has with others in its catalogue, presents the material on both a standard audio CD and a PureAudio Blu-Ray disc.