How many recordings of Dvorák's Král a Uhlír -- King and Charcoal Burner -- does anyone need? How many could anyone have? The work's only previous digital recording was a serviceable if uninspiring and drastically cut reading with Josef Chaloupka leading the Prague National Theatre Orchestra released in 1989 by Supraphon, and except among the hardest of hardcore Dvorák fans, it barely dented the international market. This live and much livelier 2005 recording with Gerd Albrecht leading the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln released on Orfeo in 2006 should do much better because it is much better: better performed, better conducted, better recorded, and, most importantly, nearly uncut.
For those not already familiar with Dvorák's second and almost unpronounceable opera, Král a Uhlír is a Czech nationalist comedy version of the hallowed Romantic opera genre: the ruler who longs to embrace the simple but contented life of his people -- think Glinka's A Life for the Tsar or Lortzing's Zar and Zimmerman, or Paris and Nicole's The Simple Life -- set, in this case, to Wagnerian melodies and harmonies and Bohemian rhythms. Thankfully, Dvorák's model was Meistersinger and not Götterdämmerung, and thus the homespun dance rhythms propel Walter and Eva, not Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Written and rejected in 1871, entirely rewritten and premiered in 1874, then revived with a completely new third act in 1887, Král a Uhlír gradually got closer to what most listeners would recognize as Dvorák's personal style: radiantly lyrical, richly colorful, and rousingly vigorous. Although there are still passages that sound distinctly Wagnerian -- compare the quartet in Act I with the Quintet in Act III of Meistersinger -- by Act III, the music is wholly and uniquely Dvorákian -- compare the dancing choral conclusion with the closing movement of the Eighth Symphony. Sung with passionate enthusiasm by a nearly all-Czech cast and utilizing the Prager Kammerchor in the all-important choral climaxes, this performance is convincingly Czech-sounding. Conducted with complete dedication by Albrecht -- the man who has already recorded five other nearly forgotten Dvorák operas -- and played by the suave, supple, and strong WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln -- the orchestra that can play anything from Shostakovich's Fifth to Xenakis' ST/48 for 48 Instruments and win -- this recording easily surpasses Chaloupka's account, particularly in Orfeo's clearer, warmer, and much more vivid sound. If you're only going to hear one Král a Uhlír, this is it.