More recently it has found the time to focus on minority causes and cases of unjustified neglect. And last week it brought us music by two of the most arresting British composers of the past 60 years, yet two who were not always supported by the tide of fashion, Elisabeth Lutyens and Elizabeth Maconchy.
After decades of castigation by our conservative critical establishment for being a 12-tone serialist, Lutyens had a brief period of success in the Sixties and early Seventies, only to find herself once more out of step in an era of retrogression and easier listening. Composer of the Week included music from all these periods, and most impressive it was. Few composers in the Fifties could have matched her powerful orchestral work, Quincunx, while a group of 1971 pieces broadcast last Thursday showed how tumultuously productive she was when at the height of her power. Islands, an extraordinary concoction of settings from Sophocles to Rabelais for soprano, tenor and chamber orchestra, seemed, I remember, a little too discursive at its premiere, but now the sheer power and vitality of invention carries the day, and one's elation at hearing it again was tempered by shame for a musical establishment that can ignore such an arrestingly individual voice.
Her oboe quartet Driving Out the Death and a haunting piece for counter- tenor and old and new music ensembles, The Tears of Night, were no less impressive, while Triolet 2, from her final year, touchingly reminded us of her grit in a period of great difficulty.
Lutyens's junior by a year, Elizabeth Maconchy was not such a radical figure and sustained links with her less modernistic contemporaries. Yet she forged musical processes with an intellectual rigour that matched an intense range of emotion, and works like Music for Strings and the exquisite The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, for choir and chamber group, made the most moving effect. So personal in tone are these two late works that the composer seems to be talking to you with complete candour, and you are only too ready to be her confidant. This revealing week was compered most sensitively by Lutyens's old pupil, Robert Saxton, and Maconchy's daughter Nicola LeFanu.
Hear and Now, Radio 3's latest weekly outlet for the music of our time, devoted a whole 135 minutes to the last work of the late Frank Zappa. Described as an opera-pantomime, Civilisation Phase III made rather odd listening, intercutting surreal conversations between people living inside a grand piano with a suite-like sequence of short and not obviously related pieces for Synclavier and live ensemble. Aficionados Robert Sandall, Mark Russell and Mark Anthony Turnage cast some light on the project, but the music obstinately refused to define its dramatic aims. What emerged was that Zappa's years on the wrong side of the tracks were worth it. He is something of a cult figure for some younger "straight" musicians, and has thus been overrated, but there is no denying the musical fluency, wit and freshness of many of the little instrumental pieces that make up the work. Figures like Nancarrow, Stravinsky and Varese hover near, but never inhibit personal expression.