It was Godard, I believe, who first fully honored the cinematic qualities of the string quartet; his 1983 film First Name: Carmen seized upon the quiet dynamism and compositional elegance of nothing more than a foursome arranged in a semicircle, seated and equipped with strings. This simple beauty proves central to the appeal of Speak the Music: Robert Mann and the Mysteries of Chamber Music, a documentary about the founder and first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet.
The director, Allan Miller, needs only to observe his subject in action: Mann is such an exceptional performer, and his performances lend themselves so well to being filmed, that the film’s archival concert footage alone justifies the price of admission. To that end, Miller boasts an exhaustive repertoire, the Juilliard greatest hits: Here they are invigorating Beethoven’s Große Fuge before a crowd of thousands in ’97; there they are tearing through a bit of Bela Bartok in the 1950s, embracing modernism before it was fashionable.
Today Mann is 93 years old, but the intensity of everyone’s favorite nonagenarian maestro shows no signs of diminishing. He now spends much of his time teaching, an activity that seems to excite his passion no less than playing Schubert or Haydn. Miller finds him instructing a class of eager violin prodigies as though he were leading soldiers into battle. Watching Mann teach is a delight for the same reason it is to watch him perform: It’s because here, you sense, we are in the company of genius.