Piano fans in the Washington area settled in for 48 hours of suspense after last night's triple recital in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. When the final notes of the evening (a polka by Rachmaninoff) faded away, to be followed by tumultuous applause, it was by no means certain who would take the $20,000 first prize in the William Kapell Competition -- Christopher Taylor, Oleg Volkov or Ilia Itin.

That decision will be made by a panel of seven judges (all distinguished pianists) on Saturday evening after each of the three finalists plays a concerto with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducting the National Symphony Orchestra.

The concertos (Beethoven's Second played by Itin, Tchaikovsky's First by Volkov and Rachmaninoff's Third by Taylor) may add significant data not revealed last night in the recital phase of the competition finals -- not only how the finalists interact with a full symphony orchestra, but also how they get along in other repertoire.

No matter what happens (even if, as has been done before, the judges decline to award a first prize), Volkov, Taylor and Itin are all winners. These two Soviet pianists and one American are the survivors from a field of 156 contestants (including 17 Americans and nine Soviets) representing 16 countries, and the runner-up prizes ($10,000 and $5,000) are larger than the first prizes in many respected competitions.

Taylor, who opened the program and made a strong bid for the top prize last night, is a 20-year-old sophomore at Harvard. A winner of a National Merit Scholarship, a composer and a student of Russell Sherman, he lists no conservatories among his educational credits, only Harvard and the Interlochen music camp. For his recital program, he chose three extremely challenging works that are not the kind of facile display pieces often favored in competitions: Olivier Messiaen's mystical, craggy, profound and technically daunting "Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus," Bach's intricate Fantasy and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904, and Beethoven's towering, kaleidoscopic "Diabelli" Variations.

He presented the image of a deeply serious young artist, unsatisfied with routine or easy repertoire and eager to grow and develop as a musician. Despite some evident nervousness, he performed impressively, rising to both the bravura and the occasional deep expressiveness of Messiaen, laying out the texture of Bach's fugue with great lucidity and responding well to the wide range of styles and emotions in the Beethoven variations. He will see more in Beethoven 10 or 20 years from now than he does today, but the perceptions shown last night were remarkable in such a young musician. His Rachmaninoff, Saturday night, will be a very different kind of music. Like all the concertos, it was chosen by the judges (Katja Andy, John Browning, Joseph Kalichstein, Walter Klien, Anton Kuerti, Menahem Pressler and Lev Vlasenko) from a list of three submitted by the contestant.

Volkov, 32, and an assistant professor at the Moscow State Conservatory, varied his program nicely, opening with an early Beethoven sonata (Op. 2, No. 3 in C), continuing with Liszt's light, fast and flashy "Gnomenreigen" and ending with Shostakovich's violently brilliant Sonata No. 1. His playing is strong, agile and accurate; he has a fine sense of the various styles of the music he chose, and he showed ease in lyrical, cantabile playing (notably Beethoven's slow movement) as well as the fast, brilliant and percussive styles that were more prevalent in his selections. But the Tchaikovsky, Saturday night, will give him more of a chance to explore this kind of music.

Itin is 23 and a student of Lev Naumoff at the Moscow Conservatory. He chose later romantics (Franck, Chopin and Rachmaninoff) exclusively for his recital program. In Chopin's Barcarolle, Op. 60, and Franck's Prelude, Fugue and Variation, Itin played with great fluency and flawless technique. His performance of Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36, did not find much sequential logic or consistency, but that is more the composer's problem than the performer's. His performance had great charm, finely controlled color and moments of emotive power, and it inspired some of the evening's warmest applause.