In 2017, when pianist Mirna Lekic released her solo debut album Masks – streaming at Spotify – who knew how much cultural baggage that title would take on! Lest anyone get the wrong idea, the themes she explores here have nothing to do with fascist regimentation or pseudoscientific propaganda. Au contraire: this is a playful, entertaining, extremely smartly programmed and insightfully dynamic collection of music. The connecting threads are childhood and phantasmagoria, typically the jaunty rather than sinister kind.
She begins with Debussy’s six-part La Boite a Joujoux (The Toybox), the last of his ballet scores. The contrast between blithely leaping passages and murky, resonant lows is striking, and Lekic cuts loose with abandon when the opportunity arises: this isn’t a cautious album. The opening prelude, for example, is slower, with more emphatic bursts – which give it character – than other pianists typically focus on.
Later, the toy soldiers on the battlefield have a light-footed strut that borders on satire (an approach that could also, without any subtext, simply illustrate a kid’s carefree imaginary world).
The Sheepfold for Sale is on the spare side, practically an etude in how to play Asian pentatonics with icepick precision. Lekic finds plenty of goofy humor in Tableau IV (A Fortune Made) and closes the suite on a high note.
A pair of very different works serve as the centerpiece here. Debussy’s Masques is somewhat more darkly phantasmagorical, and Lekic gives it a very saturnine ending. With its creepy single-note bassline, 20th century American composer Robert Muczynski’s Masks makes an unexpectedly good segue despite its thornier harmonies.
Martinu’s triptych Loutky (Puppets) bookends more traditional carnivalesque sounds around a famous, lighthearted Harlequin of a waltz: Lekic seems to draw what she can from what’s pretty insubstantial music. She closes the record with another lesser-known trio of short works, Villa-Lobos’ Prole Do Bebe (Baby’s Family), which reveal a strong Debussy influence, both in terms of gestures and pentatonics. Dolls made of porcelain, papier-mache and wood, respectively, come across as remarkably agile, scintillating and finally, anything but wooden. Instead, Lekic leaves the listener with a smile and a romp.