At the 1981 Cliburn competition in Fort Worth a 19-year-old Australian pianist, Kathryn Selby, made about as big an impression as one can make without winning--a bittersweet dilemma. She was the youngest artist in the contest and some of the judges found her work a little uneven.

Yesterday, in a recital at the Phillips Collection, she was still a bit uneven, but at her best. In Brahms' grueling Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, she was spectacular.

There is a certain irony that her best work was in the most difficult on the program. The Handel Variations run an exhaustive gamut of the emotions that Brahms would develop later in his career--heroics, lyricism, hysteria, humor, mystery, exultation. Selby rose to this array of challenges. Her playing had tremendous thrust and breadth.

The concert began with an intense, driving performance of that tragic Mozart sonata, the A-minor, K. 310. The spirit was right but primary and secondary lines were not contrasted as deftly as they might be. The same was true in Beethoven's mighty A-flat major Sonata, Op. 110. The bass lines often seemed too loud and the work did not quite have the autumnal lyricism that is best for it.

But all those defects simply disappeared in the Brahms, and in the beautifully done Chopin Etude that was an encore.

Selby also played Ezra Laderman's little eight-section suite called "Momenti." It sounded a little like Chopin or Schumann without their harmonies. It was not momentous. --Lon Tuck