The story of Walter Kaufmann (1907-1984) reads like a Graham Greene novel. The Czechoslovakian Jewish composer fled the Nazis, who later killed many of his relatives including his father. Leaving in haste, Kaufmann chose to take his family to India. Settling in Bombay (now named Mumbai), he became head of European music at All India Radio. He wrote the station’s ID music, a violin melody based on a raga, with the violin part played by Mehdi Mehta, Zubin’s father.

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After the war, he lived in London for a while writing scores for J. Arthur Rank films. Then, armed with a glowing reference from Einstein, Kaufmann headed to Canada where he taught piano and rejuvenated the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra as their new conductor and Music Director. Finally, in 1956, he was offered a job in America, where he spent the rest of his life teaching musicology at the Indiana University Music School and Bloomington. From living and working in India, Kaufmann became something of a European authority on Central Asian music, Indian ragas in particular, and wrote several textbooks on the subject.

Throughout his travels and itinerant musical activities, he remained a prolific composer. The chamber works on this disc emanate from his Bombay sojourn (although they cannot be dated specifically) and show a strong influence of Indian music on the composer’s basically modernist style. The music features long exotic melodies playing around the Phrygian mode, usually over a drone of an open fifth, alternating with motoric rhythmic passages. Rhythmic cells are heavily accented in the manner of Bartók. The Eleventh String Quartet presents these compositional fingerprints in the most varied and compelling way. The slow movement (Sostenuto cantabile) is an entrancing example of the composer’s long raga-style melodic line, beginning with solo cello. Then later, you hear a jazzy kletzmer influence in the syncopated rhythms of the fourth movement (Allegro barbarico), where Kaufmann quotes tongue-in-cheek his All India Radio tune.

A softer side to the composer appears in the works with piano. Although the Violin Sonata No 2 has its moments of rhythmic drive, elsewhere the piano writing puts an impressionistic haze around the singing violin. This is very unusual music for its time (late 1930s). Bartók’s influence is at its strongest in the folk dance-influenced finale.

The single-movement Septet is clearly the work of the same musical imagination, beginning with explosive rhythmic energy. The gentler nine-minute Sonatina, originally for violin and piano, sounds remarkably authentic in this transcription for clarinet (particularly the first movement, another Sostenuto cantabile).

This is part of a Chandos series called Music in Exile, recorded by the ARC Ensemble from Canada. They play Kaufmann’s music with care, excitement, and even abandon when necessary. I am particularly impressed with violinist Jamie Kruspe in the Sonata, whose portamento and tonal shading point up the music’s exoticism. Clarinettist Joaquin Valdepeñas produces beautiful tone, and pianist Kevin Ahfat accompanies sensitively in both works.

Sound quality is first class. Walter Kaufmann is well worth investigating.

Composer: Walter Kaufmann
Works: String Quartets Nos 7 & 11, Violin Sonata No 2, Violin Sonatina No 12
Performers: ARC Ensemble
Label: CHANDOS CHAN20170

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