Ancient music does not exist. There is only music in performance, always in the present. Or so said Gregorio Paniagua, whose Atrium Musicae of Madrid had its Washington debut at the Terrace Theater last night. And indeed, there was a freshness shining through the scholarship, a thrill preceding thoughtful respect. The Atrium Musicae is quite simply the finest and most exciting early music ensemble I have ever heard.

The program included Spanish music from the 12th to the 17th centuries, and a 20th-century premiere. With wit and idiomatic ease, the six musicians traversed the repertory from the ferocious rhythms of Navarran dances to the unmistakable Arabic line of 14th-century Andalusian songs without words. There were exotic chimes, drums, recorders and violins, and a hand organ equipped with strings. And, of course, the Spanish guitar. The newest work played was Paniagua's own "Sonata to Sigmund Freud," scored for three guitars with winds, bells, strings and a bicycle horn operated by foot. It was tonally conservative and quite funny, as if Kagel's percussion writing had somehow married a Legrand melody.

Another Washington first was a performance of the first score ever printed in the New World, a 1631 Peruvian dance with voice called "Hanacpchap," which provided some fun for the evening.