It could be that Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition founder/director Paul C. Pollei is right. Maybe this is "the year of the Russians."

Certainly they are being talked about as much as anyone midway through the competition's preliminary rounds, which conclude Thursday and Friday, June 20 and 21, at Symphony Hall. Especially Oleg Marshev and Ilia Itin, who performed Tuesday, and 21-year-old Violetta Egorova, who performed Wednesday.At the same time there are a few non-Russians whose names one hears as well, principally Anthony Padilla - one of this year's returnees - and Britain's Peter Longworth, whose Brahms reportedly set some ears abuzz late Wednesday.

As luck would have it, I missed all but Egorova, and that despite having caught no fewer than 33 of this year's 52 competitors. That will be corrected Thursday and Friday. But until then I'm afraid I have to concur with the opinion expressed by a local pianist as we bumped into each other following the Wednesday-afternoon round: "The level's high, but I can't say I've heard one real standout."

Based on what I've heard, the level is high, at least in terms of very few dropping below a certain standard. But as there have been few dips, there also have been few peaks.

Oh, the audience has its favorites, including understandably those pianists with local ties and, it would seem, anyone who plays the "Mephisto Waltz" (Liszt). And, as it happens, the two Utah-connected pianists I heard did not do all that badly, William Marsden's Chopin lacking only the last ounce of poetry and security and Massimiliano Frani stirring some legitimate excitement in Book 1 of Brahms' Paganini Variations.

But neither ignited the applause that followed Egorova's "Erlkoenig" (Schubert-Liszt), here intense and rhapsodic, with some otherworldly soft playing, and her Paganini outing, this time the sixth of Liszt's Paganini Etudes (based on the 24th Caprice). And that despite a tendency both here and in her Chopin to skate over the surface.

If that sounds like we're getting a lot of Paganini this time out, well, that's nothing compared to those five "Mephisto Waltzes," not to mention seven each of the Chopin Op. 10, No. 4, Etude and Op. 39, No. 6, of the Rachmaninoff "Etudes-Tableaux." And in the last instance that's not counting the three we lost due to no-shows.

In short, there's not a lot of individuality vis-a-vis the repertoire, even with two Berg Sonatas, the Copland-Bernstein "El Salon Mexico" and, occasionally, names like Alojz Srebotnjak, Donald Keats, Kenneth Leighton and Pierre Sancan. And there is likely to be even less in the quarterfinals, with their required Mozart and Prokofiev, in honor of those two composers' respective anniversaries.

Nor do I hear a lot of individuality in the playing, at least so far. At least two performers Monday played with beautiful tone but little spine or expression. The controlled fire of Eric Himy's Prokofiev was counterbalanced by the wild rhythms of his Chopin (the "Winter Wind" Etude). In many ways Ervin Nagy's Bach proved to be not all that different from his Rachmaninoff, but at least he had something to say. Ditto Golda Wainberg-Tatz's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue vis-a-vis her Liszt, although there may have been too many slips in the latter for her to advance.

Similarly I welcomed Chin Yan Lau's last-minute inclusion of the Godowsky "Fledermaus" Paraphrase, but the rhythms failed to breathe. On the other hand, with the exception of her Debussy, Yugoslavia's Ivan Svarc was at her best when piling on the force.

In Wednesday's Liszt sweepstakes, Stephen Johnson's beautifully colored but sometimes superficial "Mephisto Waltz," with its exaggerated dynamic extremes, predictably brought down the house. Bravos likewise greeted Andrey Kasparov's crudely aggressive "Wilde Jagd" (from the Trancendental Etudes) and Wojciech Kocyan's "Rigoletto" Paraphrase, strong but a little unrelenting.

As in past years, the audience does get a chance to vote in this competition, both for an audience award at the end and for awards of their own for those ballots in all four rounds that most closely match the jury's selections. Prizes range from Bachauer posters to airfare to the competition winner's New York debut.

As for the jury itself, late Friday members will each pick 20 candidates to be advances, together with five alternates (in case of ties). The 20 with the highest number of "yes" votes will then go on to the quarterfinals, Saturday and Monday, June 22 and 24, after which 10 of them will be similarly advanced to the semifinals.

If that sounds easy, it isn't. This year the prelims alone involve more than 12 hours a day of concentrated listening. But so far that hasn't lessened their interest or, on Wednesday's evidence, compassion. Witness the Brazilian competitor who broke down part way through her Scriabin etude that night, started again, then stopped in the same place. Could she be excused, she asked, from the rest of the contest? Why not start with the next piece, the judges suggested. The result was that she not only got through it but got an ovation.

And the piece? What else but the "Mephisto Waltz"?