In the end, it was poetry that made the difference at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theater on Saturday. The three pianists who made it to the finals of the University of Maryland International Piano Competition, through the grueling series of preliminary recitals where the weeding out was done, played their respective concertos brilliantly. It was a full-dress affair. The Baltimore Symphony was on the stage and the audience was full of knowledgeable and expectant musicians.

Nina Tichman, the only American finalist, had chosen the Brahms First as her concerto, and she launched into it forcefully. Her approach was businesslike, competent and attentive to detail. Had the orchestra been on its toes, it would have been a lot more helpful. As it was, under the ineffectual leadership of Silva Pereira, it lurched through the music, managing only approximate ensemble with the soloist.

Israeli pianist Vladimir Levtov was next up with Beethoven's First. By this time, the orchestra had gotten itself in hand and Levtov was able to concentrate on his immaculate technique. Each note appeared in polished form; each chord had a transparent clarity.

But the last finalist and, at 19, the youngest in the whole field of competitors, Boris Slutsky from the Soviet Union, had only to play the first few chords of the third of Beethoven's concertos to capture the hearts of the audience and, as it turned out, of the eminent panel of judges. His performance gave shape and beauty to the simplest line. Every phrase has been carefully thought out and then internalized. He made mistakes -- some whopping wrong notes -- but they could not eclipse the ineffable quality of loveliness that he brought to the music.

Slutsky studied in Moscow and at the Mannes School in New York. His parents both play in the Baltimore Symphony. As the winner of the $5,000 first prize, he was a popular choice.The $3,000 second prize went to Tichman and the $1,500 third to Levtov. Other awards went to semifinalists Clipper Erickson, Brian Zeger, Dmitry Rachmanov, and Kuei Pin Yeo. As a new twist, this year, the audience was polled for its choice, and the $200 audience prize went to -- no surprises here -- Boris Slutsky.