MUSIC / Fiddling for his supper: Frank Peter Zimmermann has a passion for Strads and five-star restaurants. Mark Pappenheim met him

THERE'S a nice Heifetz story in Andre Previn's recent volume of Hollywood memoirs, No Minor Chords. The great violinist was giving a Bach masterclass to a group of Californian students when one youngster came unstuck on a particular phrase. Settling his own instrument beneath his chin, Heifetz proceeded to show the way with playing of piercing beauty. 'But, Mr Heifetz,' the student protested, 'you have your Stradivarius, whereas I have only my cigar-box' - whereupon the Maestro picked up the 'cigar-box' and played the same phrase, just as beautifully as before. The lesson, of course, is that, when it comes to music, it's the player, not the instrument, that calls the tune. And yet, there's no doubt that, while a fine fiddle can't turn just anyone into a virtuoso, a great instrument can make a great artist sound greater still. No wonder it's every fiddler's dream to play a Strad at least once in a lifetime.

But be warned, says Frank Peter Zimmermann. Putting a Strad into the hands of the average violinist is like sticking a Sunday driver behind the wheel of a Formula One racing- car - 'you really have to know how to handle it'. And he should know: for, at 28, this rising young German star already has not just one, but two Strads at his fingertips.

A pupil of the Belgian, Herman Krebbers, and a self-consciously German artist ('Well, I'm not coming from Denmark]' he quips), Zimmermann takes the Russian, David Oistrakh, as his model for cultivating a more relaxed, Old World style of playing in contrast to the harder-driven intensity of the now-dominant American school. 'Oistrakh was one of the few players who never pressed his right arm on the strings,' he observes. 'He just let its natural weight rest on the bow. His left arm, his whole body, everything was very relaxed. Whereas Heifetz, whom I also adore, always looked so tense. Heifetz had the precision, but Oistrakh had the bigger sound. Both together is not possible.'

Given the choice between precision and personality, it's clear which Zimmermann would plump for. 'Nowadays, all the artists listen to what the others are doing and somehow the kind of individual playing of a Kreisler or a Busch is not possible any more - also, of course, because of this terrible perfectionism that recording forces upon us. This is my biggest fear actually, because if we continue playing all in the same style, nobody will be interested any more.'

For the moment, however, Zimmermann need have no worries about lack of interest. He first came to public notice in Germany after winning the 1976 Jugend Musiziert youth competition at the age of 11 (after coming second to Anne-Sophie Mutter, two years his senior, in the same competition two years before - 'and since then,' he adds with a laugh, 'she is always two steps in front]'). He made his Salzburg Festival debut at 17 and his first recording (for EMI) at 18, played with the Berlin Philharmonic at 20 and is now in demand with every major orchestra in the world.

If he is not yet a household name, he soon should be, for on the first of next month he follows Placido Domingo and Cheryl Studer as the Berlin Philharmonic's chosen guest in the third of the orchestra's now annual series of May Day matinee concerts. Internationally televised from a different European city every year (last year's, from the Escorial, reached an estimated audience of a billion), this year's Europa Concert comes for the first (and, given government plans to cancel the May Day holiday, probably last) time from London. British audiences can hear Zimmermann again later this year when he plays with the London Philharmonic and Franz Welser-Most at both the Proms and the Edinburgh Festival. Yet, looking back, he believes his career might well have come to a standstill by now if he had not got his hands on the right instrument at the right time.

Having made it through his teens on a non-vintage Guarnerius, Zimmermann had graduated to owning his own Strad by the age of 20. But even Strads come in degrees - early, middle, 'golden' and late - and Zimmermann's was 'only' an early model from 1684. By 25, he felt the limitations of the instrument were cramping his style - 'there was a border that I just couldn't cross'.

He was helped out of his spot by an imaginative bit of sponsorship from his local state bank, which presented him with a new Strad on permanent loan. The new instrument, known as the Hilton, was a big step up from his own. A middle period 'Long Strad' from 1691, it had not been played for almost 150 years and was in near-perfect condition.

Zimmermann credits it with raising him to a new level of musical maturity - 'because Strads educate the player, not the other way round. This Hilton is an instrument with lots of colours - not a big sound, but very sensitive. It opened my horizons.' It also opened his ears - 'It's very strange,' he says, 'but actually I never got close to French music until I got the Hilton' - and he quickly recorded a disc of Ravel and Debussy sonatas. More profoundly, though, it altered his whole approach to playing. 'I had to change it, because a Stradivarius forces you to change, to play it its way.' Such pronouncements tend to sound a little metaphysical, but Zimmermann offers a concrete example: 'On my earlier Strad, you really had to fight for every note. With this Hilton, you don't need to fight - and if you do, if you force the vibrato, then the violin sounds like a prostitute shouting at you. So you have to do the vibrato much less and also the speed of the bow much less.'

Yet, much as he values the Hilton, his voice still becomes faint with frustration at the thought of the still finer instrument that eluded his grasp. For, two years before his death last December, the veteran Russian-American virtuoso Nathan Milstein decided to sell his Strad and asked Beare's, the London dealers, to find a buyer, specifying only that it be someone 'young, European and talented'. Beare's suggested Zimmermann. And so, for a whole month, the 25-year-old had the use of a true 'Golden Period' instrument - the Goldmann of 1716.

'I played on it for one month - I did the Brahms Concerto - and then suddenly Beare's said there was a problem.' It turned out the violin was not for sale. As Charles Beare explains, Milstein had forgotten that, 10 years before, he had put the violin into trust for his daughter - 'and the conditions of the trust were such that it could not be sold until after his death, even if she and he both wanted it, as indeed they did.'

'This was for me the greatest shock in my whole life,' Zimmermann says. 'The Hilton is a fantastic violin, of course, but the Milstein was incredible: it sounded so good, so big. When I played the Brahms, even in the loudest passages in the first movement, you really only needed to play with two or three hairs - it came, like that . . .' Milstein has now sadly died, but his Strad remains tantalisingly out of reach, tied up in probate.

But if Zimmermann's consuming passion is for Strads, it is almost matched by his passion for consuming - in five-star restaurants. 'It costs a fortune,' he admits, 'but gives me a lot of joy and also a lot of inspiration for my music-making.' As he explains, 'When we were recording the Debussy and Ravel sonatas, we used to dine every night at this famous restaurant in Basel called Stucki and I think it made us even more sensitive to French music. The tongue feeds straight into the vibrato and the heart. You can't play Debussy or Ravel if you eat just fried potatoes.'

But that 1991 CD also contains a Janacek sonata: how did he diet for that? 'Ja, that was a problem, because somehow Janacek, after Ravel and Debussy, is like when you are in a beautiful castle and then you go down into the cows' barn and there is smelling and everything lying around. Well, of course, you have to go and eat really oily, heavy Czech cuisine - or Greek might be fine, I suppose.'

All this talk of food and fiddles reminds him of a story about Milstein. 'He was on a recital tour of America in the Thirties and arrived very late for a concert in a small town in the Midwest. When he came on stage, he saw there were only 25 people in the hall. And he was so tired and hungry, he just said, 'Well, folks, how's about we forget the concert and I invite you all out to dinner instead?' And of course there was big applause and they all began going off to dinner, when suddenly an old lady showed up. And she said, 'Well, Mr Milstein, it's nice that you invite me to dinner, but actually I've come 25 miles on my horse just to hear you and it was such a hard journey, please, Mr Milstein, can't you sing just one little song for me?' ' Given Zimmermann's illustrious operatic predecessors at the 1991 and 1992 Europa Concerts, one trusts that British audiences won't arrive at the Albert Hall this May Day morning under a similar misapprehension.

The last time Zimmermann appeared in the hall was for his Proms debut, with the Beethoven Concerto, last summer. He had only recently switched from using the Kreisler cadenzas to the more rarely heard set by Auer (as used by Heifetz on his historic recording with Toscanini) - but few in the hall will have noticed. 'It was 40 degrees centigrade,' he recalls, 'and by the time I reached the first cadenza, the violin was so out of tune it sounded more like Schnittke than Auer.' Given the early morning start, his May Day Mozart should be more recognisable - so long as he skips the fried breakfast.

Europa Concert 1993: 10.30am Sat 1 May, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (071-589 8212) pounds 5- pounds 30

(Photograph omitted)