There is a strangely compelling power in the music Sir Edward Elgar wrote to Cardinal Newman's prophetic poem, "The Dream of Gerontius," The long poem is a mystical vision of the prpgress of a human soul just before and after death. In today's world where human life sometimes raises heavy questions of value, Newman's words and Elgar's music carry a welcome sense of infinity.

The famous oratorio moved into the Kennedy Center yesterday afternoon when Norman Scribner and the Choral Arts Society gave the work its first performance in Washington other than in the Washington Cathedral. It was an often beautiful, deeply moving performance.

The choruses, ranging from seraphic hymns to demonic threats, were superbly sung. Scribner had the work well in hand, and members of the National Symphony played with impressive luster. Only a single strange failture occurred: That great climax at the moment the Soul moved into the presence of God simply failed to make its point, either in the orchestra or from the tenor soloist.

Other than in that single passage, Richard Lewis, in the title role, offered an intensely personal, probing performance full of senstivie touches. Though he held a score, he rarely referred to it.

Katherine Ciesinski's mezzo was beautiful for the part of the Angel, though a weightier sound was needed at times. John Cheek used his magnificent bass-baritone with arresting power as the Priest.