ROCKPORT — Early music has its purists and pedants, its scholars and heretics. Jordi Savall is one of its great souls. A gentle, unassuming, and learned presence, Savall, a gambist, has for decades been taking listeners on vibrant, thematically cohesive journeys into the past with various groups — Hespèrion XXI and Le Concert des Nations chief among them.
On Friday, Savall visited the Rockport Chamber Music Festival with just a pair of colleagues. Their program, “Orient-Occident: A Dialogue of Souls,” sampled Ottoman, Arabo-Andalusian, Jewish, and Christian music from medieval Spain and the Mediterranean. The cultural interplay was not without contemporary relevance; in words of writer Amin Maalouf quoted in the program, “the diverse does not have to be a prelude to the adversarial.”
Savall spent the evening switching between a couple of centuries-old string instruments — the fiddle-like rebec, and the deeper-voiced rebab. Dimitri Psonis played the oud (a Moorish guitar) and a dulcimer-like instrument called a santur. David Mayoral played a variety of percussion instruments and was responsible for much of the music’s color and texture.
The concert was divided into four large suites. Each mixed pieces of varying cultural origins yet managed to sound unified and coherent. Most pieces followed one of a few basic patterns — florid melodies over a drone, lamenting songs, courtly dances. As Savall explained from the stage, there is no real harmony; all the music’s tension and drive comes from the interplay of consonance and dissonance.
That was especially true in the slower numbers, such as the opening “Alba” (“Dawn”), a smoldering melody from the eastern province of Spain. In the dances — especially “El Rey Nimrod,” a Sephardic piece — there was momentum and unusual rhythmic complexity.
Who wrote this music? Where did it originate? How much of it was written down, how much improvised by the performers? These and other questions dissolved in the fluid musical interaction among the three men and the crisp, clean beauty of the sound, a perfect acoustical match for the Shalin Liu Performance Center. The large window at the back of the stage was uncovered, and a lightning storm provided visual accompaniment.
The concert was dedicated to the memory of soprano Montserrat Figueras, Savall’s wife and musical co-adventurer until her death last November. Nothing that was played was more affecting than the encore, a Sephardic song in which a recording of Figueras’s voice was piped through the sound system while the trio accompanied her on stage.
“She’s always with us,” said Savall. “I think we only die when someone forgets us.”