Through Diverse Voices Over Millennia, Cantata Invokes Spirit Of Mercy

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The Houston Chamber Choir teams with the Kinetic Ensemble on their recording of Daniel Knaggs’ ‘Two Streams.’

Daniel Knaggs: Two Streams. Houston Chamber Choir and Kinetic Ensemble; Robert Simpson, conductor. Cappella Records (CR-429). Total time 70:02.

DIGITAL REVIEW — As a polyglot with six languages under his belt and a former Spanish teacher, American composer Daniel Knaggs is keenly aware of every aspect of text. It’s a sensitivity that serves him well in his vocal music. The world-premiere recording on Cappella Records of his work Two Streams, featuring the Houston Chamber Choir, is a fine case in point.

The composer defines this 14-movement work as a “cantata for choir, string orchestra, and soloists.” The main textual source is the diary of Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905–1938), a Polish Catholic nun and mystic who wrote down “words she heard and experienced in prayer,” as Knaggs puts it in his booklet note. Knaggs, who had long been interested in this material, was finally spurred on to write the piece when his father died in 2019. The libretto weaves in verses from the Bible in Latin as well as other Latin and Greek liturgical texts. The cantata’s overall theme is the importance of mercy.

The Houston Chamber Choir and the Kinetic Ensemble, under Robert Simpson — as featured on this recording — gave the first performance of the cantata in 2021. Later that year, a version with Kowalska’s works in the original Polish was premiered by the Schola Cantorum Thorunensis at the Musica Vera Festival in Toruń, Poland, with Knaggs conducting.

Having borrowed from many centuries’ worth of music history, Knaggs acknowledges that the range of inspiration might seem eclectic. Still, he makes a compelling argument: “For millennia now, music has been seen as an apt medium for imploring, showing, and celebrating mercy.” Two Streams is merely a continuation of that tradition. Essential to the work’s success is the composer’s skill in integrating bursts of techniques from various periods into a larger stylistic whole.

The opening prologue, floating in on string harmonics, blossoms into lush chords reminiscent of Vaughan Williams. The choir sings the Kowalska hymn that bookends the whole work:

Two streams in the form of rays/Have gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus,/Not for Angels, nor Cherubim, nor Seraphim,/But for the salvation of sinful humanity.

Like Vaughan Williams, Knaggs has a knack for turning the old into the new. Well, the newer, anyway. There’s far more of the 20th century than the 21st in Knaggs’ dense, smooth textures and mild but persistent dissonances. One thing is certain: He has all the old techniques down, from homophonic chordal structures to imitative counterpoint.

Knaggs is fortunate to have the Houston choir at his disposal. The singers’ intonation and rhythm are always exacting, no matter how busy the score becomes. They have the power of a group twice their size when needed, yet they can also diminish to a silvery pianissimo. And they must do all of that and everything in between. Knaggs has glued together bits of text in multiple languages, with some sections assigned to the choir and some to solo singers. In a way, the 14 “movements” seem designated randomly; each of them contains multitudes.

David Knaggs

With so many centuries to draw on, Knaggs paints in an endless range of tone colors and textures. The second movement, “Thick Darkness,” finds the choir answering baritone Mark Diamond’s haunting sound in a wraith-like chant while the violins strike through the bass-heavy orchestration with off-beat single notes. The third movement starts with dark-voiced soprano Caitlin Aloia singing in English against fluttering string trills; the choir responds in Latin, moving between two dissonant chords while the orchestra holds a drone spread over several octaves.

Another movement uses the Kyrie, sung largely a cappella, followed by a smattering of a meditation by Kowalska. The four soloists — Diamon, Aloia, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, and tenor Christopher Bozeka — then share part of the Agnus Dei text. That spare sound explodes into another meditation with the full chorus doubled by soaring strings. Cooke is especially dramatic in her recitative-like declamation of the opening text of the sixth movement, called “Song of Mercy II.”

The Houston-based Kinetic Ensemble has no conductor. Robert Simpson, artistic director of the Houston Chamber Choir, was tasked with leading the combined forces. The voices and instruments work together naturally, flowing confidently onward as the score hurtles them from one style to the next. Movement 13, “Come, O Earth,” is an especially good example. The oscillation between soloists with string quartet and full choir with orchestra — including a Handelian fugue — is seamless. Kinetic, now in its eighth season, is proving itself to be an important proponent for new music.

The production work by multiple Grammy-winner Blanton Alspaugh brings the sound to life. The mixing was done with Alspaugh’s usual collaborators at Boston’s Soundmirror, an employee-owned collective of classical-music specialists. The result of tapping such high-level experts is a colorful, even angelic, sonic experience.

While Two Streams may not win any prizes for originality, it is genuinely heartfelt and stirring yet never cloying. In a world that can seem brutal and unforgiving, a musical balm for the soul and a plea for mercy such as this is most welcome and timely.